Gaza is Israel’s Soweto. Each has its own lexicon but similar reference points. The “township” becomes here the refugee camp. Military occupation, like apartheid, means segregation in residence, employment, politics, education and law. In Gaza, the pass card is known as an identity card. Here “removal” becomes “deportation.” In other respects, the vocabulary is identical: labor reserve, arrest, detention, imprisonment, demolition. As in Nadine Gordimer’s South Africa, there are two divides between Israel and Gaza Strip: The “physical divide of clean streets” that become the urban slums and dense camps, and the “other divide”: between the possessors and the dispossessed, those “for whom others have made all the decisions.” [1]

As in Soweto, only when “the other divide” is crossed violently in either direction — in mass uprisings or army crackdowns — does Gaza merit notice in the press. The most recent instance was this September, when Israeli troops fresh from Lebanon shot and killed three young Palestinians in Gaza and injured several more. How the decades of repeated armed violence have affected Gaza’s people is incalculable.

The Making of the “Gaza Strip”

Like Soweto, Gaza Strip is a ghetto territory designated by colonial settlement, created as a result of a struggle for land, a 28-mile long stretch of Mediterranean coastline. Four to eight miles wide, it is a fragment of Palestinian land and society delimited by the 1949 Egyptian-Israeli armistice. The boundaries are Israel to the north and east, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula to the south and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. In 245 square miles, 460,000 Palestinians (and 2,000 Israeli settlers) live crammed into one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The struggle to control this land and the people in it continues to be the main determinant of life for Palestinians in Gaza, just as a similar struggle controls life in Soweto.

Before 1948, 80,000 people lived in the Gaza area, tied into the economy of southern Palestine and, to some extent, that of Egypt. The town of Gaza was the third largest Palestinian port, serving the grain-growing Hebron-Beersheva area. Khan Younis and Rafah were market towns for local agricultural produce and livestock and Rafah was the last stop on the Palestinian railroad on the way to Egypt.

As a result of the first Arab-Israeli war, 180,000 refugees fled to the area of southern Palestine under Egyptian army occupation, which became the “Gaza Strip.” This massive influx overburdened Gaza’s rural, non-industrial economy. The majority of refugees found no place in the existing socioeconomic structure of the Gaza Strip. [2]

There were “economic refugees” as well: small landowners and peasants in the north and east who lost their only source of livelihood when the land they farmed came under Israeli rule. The indigenous Gaza economy virtually disintegrated. The port lost most of its work.

Local citizens formed a voluntary committee to give emergency aid to the refugees camped under the orange groves, along the seashore and packed into overcrowded rooms and sheds in the poorer quarters of Gaza’s three towns. The committee dissolved when the Red Cross, the American Friends Service Committee and the United Nations began to coordinate relief activities. From 1950 on, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was responsible for providing basic food rations and health, education and sanitation services for the refugee population. UNRWA built one- and two-room homes beginning in 1952, in eight camps, on lands either leased or bought from private owners or on “state lands.” Landless peasants and artisans without workshops settled in the camps. The upper classes had settled in the West Bank or had begun to leave Gaza for other countries in the Arab world as that became possible. Some refugees with locally resident relatives or a steady source of employment in government or with UNRWA settled in the towns. UNRWA provided some supplies for craftsmen; some of the peasants, men and women, found seasonal labor in the large orange groves. At least 50 percent of Palestinians in Gaza were unemployed. Seventy percent depended on UNRWA rations as their main source of livelihood.

The desperate economic situation did not improve until after the first Israeli occupation of Gaza in 1956 had ended in March 1957, when small but steady sums of money started to come into Gaza from several sources. Egypt declared Gaza a “free trade zone” for foreign goods for Egyptians, and a large class of shopkeepers and merchants prospered from importing and smuggling goods. There was also employment in the UNRWA system, in the Egyptian army, spending by UN troops stationed there, and remittances began to come in from Palestinian relatives who had emigrated to the Gulf.

By the early 1960s, citrus production had emerged as the main local source of income. Economic development of any other sort was minimal. In the absence of a planning authority dedicated to local development, capital was not reinvested in projects that would employ local residents or otherwise benefit them. Enormous mansions on the Gaza shore stood in stark contrast to the refugee huts just blocks away.

Egyptian Policy

Not only were economic conditions in post 1948 Gaza desperate, but the Egyptian administration’s rigid security measures, particularly in the early period, made national political organizing very difficult. Several major factors mediated against coherent Palestinian political organization. Egyptian control of all public offices and social services excluded the refugees from the local economic structure. The indigenous economy deteriorated. UNRWA’s mandate to “stabilize” the refugee population [3] fostered a dependency mentality. Most important, Gazans were separated from the larger Palestinian population inside the Israeli and Jordanian-occupied areas of Palestine.

The Egyptian authorities kept a tight rein on political life. While the “annexed” West Bank Palestinians could travel on Jordanian passports, “stateless” Gazans depended on special permits from the Egyptian government. For most of the 1950s, Gazans were cut off from the rest of the Arab world. Egyptian authorities banned political parties and any form of political organization, a factor that also affected social and cultural organization. There were no Palestinian-run societies, with the exception of several sports clubs and the local YMCA.

All heads of civil and military departments were Egyptian. The military authorities appointed city councilors and closely monitored employment in government-run schools and hospitals. The traditional mukhtars retained functionary roles, certifying births, marriages and deaths and collecting taxes.

The tiny Palestinian national movement in Gaza was isolated. Publications were restricted. Trade unionism, which had its start in the Mandatory war economy of the early 1940s, was “not mature enough to carry across to Gaza…. The leadership of the movement remained in Palestine where it evolved later as the Communist Party.” [4] The level of ideological development in the Communist Party in Gaza, as it developed in the 1950s, was “very poor” according to a one-time Gaza Communist Party leader. [5]

Palestinians in Gaza tried frequently to sneak across the armistice line to retrieve abandoned possessions, or to carry out guerrilla raids. Those not captured and killed by the Israelis risked stiff punishments from Egyptian authorities upon their return. One of the more notorious incidents of Israeli retaliation for a guerrilla raid was when Ariel Sharon led his Unit 101 in an attack on Burayj camp in 1953, killing over 50 Palestinians and wounding many more. The Egyptian response to the massacre was to issue new security restrictions against the Palestinians.

In 1955, Palestinians staged violent demonstrations against what they saw as the collusion of Egypt, UNRWA and the US in a proposed “Sinai resettlement project.” They torched UNRWA rations distribution centers and demanded the Egyptians give them arms for self-defense from Israeli reprisal raids. Many demonstrators, including members of the Communist Party and the Muslim Brothers who took part in organizing these actions, were jailed in Egyptian prisons.

Egypt’s policy of honoring the 1949 armistice agreement and keeping the Palestinians in line was severely jolted in February 1955, when the Israeli army attacked an Egyptian police station in the center of Gaza, killing 56 men, woman and children and injuring 103. [6] Again mass demonstrations followed, demanding that Egypt arm the local population. This time, Egyptian army officer Mustafa Hafiz led Palestinian volunteers on several guerrilla raids into Israel.

After Suez

In an attack coordinated with British and French forces, Israel occupied Gaza in October 1956. Israeli troops imposed 24-hour curfews, killed scores of civilians in Khan Younis and Rafah and arrested hundreds.

A National Front, a cross-section of the political spectrum (Communists, Baathists, Muslim Brothers), united to organize resistance, mainly by writing and distributing leaflets. “Had the occupation lasted longer,” says Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi, today chair of the Red Crescent Society in Gaza and a respected progressive national figure, “the frame for establishing an organizational front was already formed. People met, covering the whole Gaza Strip, from Gaza town to the middle camps to Rafah.”

After four months, Israeli troops were forced to withdraw under US and international pressure. The UN Emergency Forces came to patrol the 1949 armistice line, and there were few incidences of guerrilla activity after that.

The most important consequence of the Israeli occupation was a change in Egyptian policy in Gaza. This was also influenced by inter-Arab rivalry and internal Egyptian factors. The military administration became more responsive to Palestinian political and economic needs. Cairo declared the dormant Gaza port a “free trade zone” for importation of foreign goods banned in Egypt. This, and the inclusion of Gaza citrus producers in trade agreements with East European countries, gave a vital boost to the stagnant economy. The number of merchants and smugglers expanded rapidly, and citrus producers found a vastly improved market for their produce. The military administration began to distribute small parcels of “state land” for new private citrus groves in the mid-1960s.

There was token recognition of Palestinian leadership in administrative functions, but repression of independent political organizations continued. A strictly limited “National Union” (equivalent to Egypt’s Arab Socialist Union) was allowed in the early 1960s, and a Gazan, Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi, was appointed president. A showpiece trade union and women’s society were also set up. ‘Abd al-Shafi recalls that the council “began posing embarrassing questions for the Egyptians, implicating military officials in bribery, tax evasion and customs fraud, and began to address the political issue of Palestine in their meetings.”

Pressure from the Gaza population, along with Syrian taunts accusing Egypt of a lack of militancy toward Israel, prompted Gamal Abdel Nasser to have the Arab League establish the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Three of the 15-member executive committee at the first Palestine National Council in Jerusalem were from Gaza. The Egyptians armed the Palestine Liberation Army as the military wing of the PLO. Based in Gaza, it received light weapons training and instructed the local population in basic military practice.

Independent groups, including the nascent Fatah, were still banned. The crackdown and imprisonment of Muslim Brothers in 1954 and Communists in 1959 covered Gaza as well as Egypt. Intellectuals were also rounded up: “I was arrested as a Communist and accused of collaborating with the colonizers [Israel]. But I was really arrested because of a series of run-ins with the military administration for refusing to do favors for them.” [7]

‘Abdallah Frangi, PLO representative in West Germany, tells in his history of the PLO how “Fatah carried out its first military operation on December 31, 1964 … The group operating in Gaza Strip was discovered by the Egyptian secret service on February 15. By February 20, all its leaders had either been imprisoned or placed under house arrest.” [8]

Occupied Again

Gaza fell under Israeli control again in 1967. The years of pent-up frustration and yearning of the refugees to return to their lands exploded in the fiercest military resistance seen to this day by Palestinians in occupied Palestine. It took the Israeli army four days in June 1967 to take over the area. Palestinian units went underground with a large supply of weapons. Joined by others, they were able to sustain a strong guerrilla resistance for nearly five years.

A resident of Burayj camp recalled the feeling of that time. “The presence of Palestinian guerrilla organizations in Gaza Strip showed that the Palestinian people hadn’t died, despite the occupation. Since 1948 we had a grudge against the Zionists. We always thought we’d be able to return or to participate in military activities to return the land.” This man, 17 years old in 1967, joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), because “it was the most famous for military activities.” The guerrillas had a strong base of support in the camps and in Gaza’s urban slums and few villages, and even had support from some of the merchants, professionals and grove owners.

The fedayeen attacked Israeli army and government targets and those they termed “collaborators,” from Israeli-appointed Mayor Rashad Shawwa to buses of workers bound for Israeli factories. Israeli officials, including Moshe Dayan, acknowledged that the fedayeen controlled Gaza at night. The guerrillas hid in the camps and in orange groves. People brought them food and clothing. Arms came from Sinai and from Lebanon. But the strike by King Hussein against the PLO in Jordan in September 1970 weakened the forces in Gaza and made it more difficult to get arms and money from outside.

The Israeli counteroffensive culminated in 1971 with Gen. Ariel Sharon’s “pacification” plan. Within the year, Israel gained military control over Gaza. Hundreds of fedayeen were captured and killed. The Israeli army shot into crowds of demonstrators, arrested and deported thousands of civilians. Collective punishment was the norm: the army imposed curfews on camps for days on end and deported whole families of suspected fedayeen to Sinai. Starting in July 1971, Israeli bulldozers ripped through rows of camp housing, leaving thousands homeless, to “thin out” the congested residential areas and make room for military patrols.

With the capture and execution of PFLP leader “Guevara” (Muhammad al-Aswad) and his comrades in 1972, the Palestinian armed resistance was defeated. After that defeat, the Israeli secret service (Shinbet) managed to set up an extensive network of informers in Gaza, playing on poverty, fear and hopelessness. Activists from these days attribute some of the Israeli success to the years of Egyptian repression and to the faulty practice of some of the fedayeen. According to one camp activist recently released from Israeli prison in Gaza, “a minority of the Palestinian forces in Gaza Strip distanced themselves by their methods: Some beat people in the streets, stole food, and confessed on all the people who had helped protect them…. Then no one wanted to help the fedayeen” A PFLP supporter in Gaza summed up the failure of the guerrilla struggle this way: “Political consciousness in Gaza Strip was limited. Young guys especially were attracted by spontaneous military operations. We had fantastic national spirit without a substantive political base.”

“Thinning out” operations continued long after Israel’s military victory over the fedayeen, reinforcing the Palestinian claim that an underlying goal of the destruction was to evict them from Gaza Strip. Indeed, in summer 1967, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had announced Israel’s intention to annex Gaza and to resettle the 1948 refugees in the West Bank and Sinai. The Allon Plan envisaged that “with the local population thus reduced to manageable proportions, Gaza would be annexed to Israel, eliminating a base for invasion.” [9] Ra’anan Weitz, head of the Jewish Agency settlement department, called for the establishment of four to five Israeli settlements in southern Gaza Strip. [10] In 1973, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin explained the purpose of a second round of “thinning out”: “In the next ten years, a natural migration of the people to East Jordan [will] take place…. The problem of the refugees should not be solved in Gaza or al-‘Arish, but rather chiefly in East Jordan.” [11]

After subduing the fedayeen and initiating the “thinning out” and deportation process, the next stage was the integration of the male camp population into the Israeli work force and subordinating the Gaza economy. Aside from filling unwanted jobs with low-paid Palestinian labor at a time of Israeli economic expansion, Israeli leaders realized that economic activity would help distract refugee attention from the resistance struggle. A Fatah leader in prison in 1968 was called in for interrogation by Mordechai Gur, who told him: “You pay 10 pounds, but we’ll pay 100. People work for money, not for national reasons.” Said the Fatah leader: “I told him he was wrong, but his words came true.” [12]

Israel easily incorporated Gaza’s work force and economy. In the West Bank, most Palestinians were tied to their own land, the level of industry was somewhat more advanced, and economic links with Jordan were strong. In Gaza, small-scale plots and workshops were even less able to stand up to competition from the large-scale, state-subsidized Israeli concerns. Israel closed Gaza port and trade with Egypt stopped. Citrus and other agricultural produce were rechanneled through Israeli marketing boards for export, and small textile workshops sprang up as subcontractors to Israeli firms. Israel closed down the banking system and imposed new taxes and duties. [13] It confiscated land and severely limited water usage.

The tiny Gazan bourgeoisie sought individual solutions that usually meant collaboration with the occupation authorities. Citrus merchants in particular found it necessary to cultivate their relationships with both Israelis and Jordanians. As the occupation took on permanence, those with capital to invest found it more profitable to initiate projects in Jordan or the Gulf rather than be subject to the restrictions and unfavorable monetary policies of the occupation. For workers with few sources of employment in Gaza, it was necessary to migrate to the Gulf for professional and white-collar employment, or to go to Israel for unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. Today, 43 percent of the Strip’s mainly male work force is employed in Israel, according to Israeli government statistics.

Israeli Settlements

Ra’anan Weitz’s dreams of settlement development in Gaza did not take off until the late 1970s. A few settlements were set up in Gaza at the beginning of the decade, but when Sadat visited Jerusalem, in late 1977, there were only some 500 Israeli settlers there. Intensive land confiscation and settlement activity followed the Sadat initiative, which Palestinians in Gaza saw as a symbolic relinquishment of Egypt’s historic policy toward Palestine and particularly toward Gaza’s future. By May 1983, the total land confiscated was more than 105,000 dunams, or about 31 percent of Gaza’s total land area. [14]

Ninety percent of Gaza’s land, including large stretches of cultivable sandy land, was never registered privately under the old Ottoman land code. [15] Israel claims that it is thus using only “state” lands for settlement, and legal contestation in the Israeli courts is for the most part impossible. In cases where land has been cultivated or privately owned, settlers are backed up with an array of military orders. Palestinian owners are frequently notified of confiscation by the arrival of a bulldozer, under military guard, to rip up vines and trees, or by a new barbed-wire fence surrounding their property. Most of the land which has been confiscated is along the seashore. A double set of access roads built in 1981 and 1982 is under constant army patrol and provides immediate passage between the settlements and beachfront property. The Israeli planners see this coastline, with its miles of undeveloped beaches, as a major tourist asset for the future. [16]

When they are completed, ten of the 14 settlements in Gaza will be agriculturally based communities. [17] Those already inhabited are pumping water from Gaza’s two sweet water reservoirs. Palestinians are not allowed to dig new wells, while old ones have been confiscated or closed. Reservoirs have already been damaged from seawater seepage as fresh water pressure is exhausted. Meters have been attached to existing wells and fines are imposed on farmers using water in excess of imposed limits. Residents cannot plant trees and permission is required for planting vegetables in new areas of land cultivated near settlement sites. As one of the most densely populated areas of the world, Gaza badly needs its few viable stretches of land for its Palestinian inhabitants. Housing and industrial developments, agricultural expansion and municipal service projects such as sewage plants and schools are all desperately needed. Israeli confiscations have virtually closed off the beach area to Palestinians, creating hardship for some 1,500 fishermen and hundreds of farmers who work at fields along the coast. New military orders restrict Palestinian housing construction to specific areas.

Katif Bloc and the Farmers of the Muwasi

The Katif bloc is eight settlements stretching from Dayr al-Balah to Rafah, about two thirds the length of the Strip, passing by the western side of Khan Younis. At 20,000 dunums it is the largest single area confiscated; about 1000 dunams are presently cultivated by Katif settlers. The three oldest Katif units were established by 1978; the others were established since the Sinai withdrawal and are still under construction. The government has had to offer attractive subsidies and incentives to get families to move into the area. Most settlement agriculture involves capital-intensive hothouse irrigation, growing vegetables and flowers for export. Katif agriculture, with its deep bore wells, is draining the small Khan Younis/Dayr al-Balah reservoir, disturbing the main water source for Palestinian agriculture in the whole south of the Gaza Strip.

Katif’s immediate neighbors are the farmers of the muwasi, who grow vegetables under the sand dunes in a farming method unique to this part of Palestine. The muwasi are level areas of sand near the sea. The farmer digs until he reaches sand of a certain density, indicating sweet water. In the summer, when the water table is lower, he bulldozes away the top layer of sand to form a barrier for the field. In the winter, he pushes the sand back on top of the field so that it does not turn into a swamp. At the time of the Mandate, only a small portion of muwasi land had been cultivated. As untended sandy land, it was considered state domain. Muwasi cultivation expanded under the Egyptian administration. The owners of registered land began farming plots next to their own, in checkerboard fashion. According to one muwasi farmer, this coastal area, including that now confiscated by Katif, was slated for distribution to Palestinian peasants under an Egyptian land distribution scheme interrupted by the 1967 war. “They were planning to finish with Gaza and then begin here, but then the war broke out. Before 1967, the UN sent some surveyors here and they drew the trees and I’m sure the Israeli government found those maps and knows that we had already planted trees all over this area.”

After 1983’s extra rainfall, muwasi farmers needed additional sand to cover their fields. Instead of granting compensation for climatic destruction of the fields, Israeli authorities forbade the farmers to move sand from “state” land. Since the muwasi are within 500 meters of the sea, they also fall under security regulations: Entrance is not allowed without a permit, no buildings are allowed, no person may be on the land from 5 pm to 5 am daily. Bulldozer use requires special permission which is not always granted, or is given only after the season is over.

Fruits of the Land

“We have nothing in Gaza besides citrus and the sea,” said one Gaza businessman recently. Citrus for export and fish for domestic consumption are indeed Gaza’s most notable products, and both are in severe crisis as a result of Israel’s priorities for this part of the occupied territories.

Before 1967, Gaza citrus took up 20 percent of the land area and was the largest source of income. Until 1976, it employed 25 percent of the local work force in the fields, packing and subsidiary activities such as transportation. [18] As a predominantly export crop, Gaza citrus is entirely dependent on Israeli controls, Jordanian marketing policy and fluctuations in the world market. Before 1967, Gaza oranges brought about $150 a ton from Western European markets. Israel, which exports citrus to the same markets, passed a military order in 1968 banning independent Palestinian exports there. Gaza merchants were encouraged to search for markets in the Arab world, which were closed to Israeli goods. In 1975, Iran began to take the Gaza crop at a good price. After the Iranian revolution, the bottom dropped out of this part of Gaza’s Gulf exports. Jordan’s central marketing board formed a cartel to buy Gaza fruit at the lowest prices. The Gulf states have started to import more Turkish and Egyptian fruit at lower, government-subsidized prices, and Gaza citrus also faces competition from Australian and Californian fruit in the Saudi market.

Israel in part compensates for the effects of competition in the world citrus trade by taking its cut from Gaza’s exports. In 1983, Palestinians paid an average of 50 Jordanian dinars (almost $150) for a single “exit permit” to cross the Jordan River bridge, and 8,000 pounds per month for each driver’s “security permit.” The array of military orders issued since 1967 have restrained expansion of the land base for planting new trees and for water usage or food processing plants. Fifteen to 20 percent of Gaza’s citrus trees were felled in 1983 as a result of restricted markets, rising fuel and fertilizer costs and water restrictions. Landowners who are also merchants can temporarily withstand citrus losses, but these developments have had a severe impact on farmers in the south, where fields are smaller and where water use by Israeli settlements in the Gush Katif has been damaging. The output on remaining trees is declining for similar reasons. Most trees were planted from 1958 to 1962, and now receive less fertilizer and water. Total output, which was 256,000 tons in 1976, had dropped to 190,000 tons in 1982-1983.

From December 1982 to June 1983, Gaza exported 123,000 tons of citrus across the Jordan bridge to the Arab world, 20,000 tons through the Israeli port of Ashdod to the socialist bloc (especially Yugoslavia), and 30,000 tons to Israel (second-class fruit for juice factories); 10,000 tons was consumed in Gaza or the West Bank, and 6,000 tons left on the trees. The average price for export was about $90 per ton, and $60 a ton for juice fruits purchased by Israeli firms.

Citrus merchants say that a juice factory in Gaza would raise employment and allow growers to ride out fluctuations in the export markets. The Israeli authorities have either outright refused permission to establish a juice factory, or else attached impossible conditions to such permission. [19] Citrus merchants also pay a political price for doing business, since they are dependent on the authorities at every stage, from planting to exporting. Export also depends on good relations with Jordan, a fact that landowner-politicians have not missed.

To certify that the citrus originated in Gaza, a merchant must obtain permits from the Israeli department of agriculture, the local chamber of commerce and the Shawwa family’s private Gaza Benevolent Society, established in 1974 with Jordanian blessings to grant bridge passes and export permits and known locally as “the Jordanian embassy in Gaza.”

“Big” and “Little” Families

Today there are about a dozen Gazan families known as “the big families” — capitalist farmers, large landowners and merchants. Some are descendants of livestock or grain merchants who became large landowners during the Ottoman period, when they received tracts from the sultan as a reward for their services as tax collectors or sheikhs. (These include Khayal, Abu Ramadan, Abu Khadra, Shawwa, ‘Alami, Sourani, Husayni and Rayyis, according to local historian Ibrahim Sukayk.) The large landowners in the middle and southern areas, like Abu Salim of Dayr al-Balah, reputedly built their land holdings on hashish smuggling during the Mandate. By contrast, large merchants like soft drink kings Yazji and Murtaja rose from the poor quarters of Gaza during the heyday of “free trade” smuggling during the late 1950s.

Most of the landlords sold part of their holdings to Zionists before 1948, though the larger land sales were all in the north of Palestine. Both these “collaborator” landlords and those who retained large tracts inside Gaza lost considerable political status after the war, with the influx of refugees.

Today, the “big families” control what is still the major industry in Gaza: agriculture. They own large farms, over 1000 dunams; several thousand “small farming families,” who work five to six dunam plots, must sell their citrus through these owners, who own the citrus export packing plants.

Smaller factories and workshops are owned by descendants of original inhabitants and refugees. These include an aluminum kitchen utensils plant, owned by a wealthy Simsim refugee, ‘Abd al-Rahman Daraba. There are also several small toilet paper, plastic sandal and housewares factories, and textile, cement block, tile, handicraft and pottery workshops.

The professionals — doctors, engineers, lawyers, UNRWA teachers and administrators and government employees — make up the largest component of the petty bourgeoisie. There is virtually no employment for scientists or social scientists.

The majority of Gazan families are supported by farm and industrial laborers. About half of Gaza’s labor force works in Israel. This includes skilled and unskilled workers from the camps and poorer sections of the towns as well as small farming families that take on additional work in Israel to supplement their income.

Women make up about 10 percent of the local work force; they are the majority of workers in the Israeli textile subcontracting workshops. A small percent of unmarried, divorced and widowed women, or women whose husbands are in prison, work in Israel as farm laborers, in factories or as cleaners. There is minimal employment for women professionals in the Strip.

Fruits of the Sea

Israel wants to be in control of the sea, as it does of the land, for purposes of security, tourist development and fishing. Following withdrawal from Sinai, Israel seeks a coastal buffer zone with Egypt. Aside from Gaza center, there are no developed beaches and little housing. This virtually untouched coast can thus be exploited by the colonial settlements for tourism. Until now, Gazans have retained fishing rights along their coast, much to the annoyance of Israeli fishermen who complain that Gazans get their nets on fish before they can swim north into Israeli waters. Competition for fish has led the Israeli Fishermen’s Union to appeal to “the defense establishment to act against Gaza fishermen,” holding that the Gazans deal in “contraband” fish purchased from Egyptian trawlers and could easily use this system “to smuggle drugs and explosives into Israel.” [20] Palestinians working in the Israeli-administered Department of Agriculture in Gaza note that in 17 years of occupation no fisherman has been arrested for arms smuggling, and there was only one case of hashish smuggling. Each Palestinian-Israeli war has further restricted fishing grounds available to Palestinians.

Eighty percent of Gaza’s fishermen are refugees expelled from other southern Palestinian coastal villages where their forefathers worked as fishermen. In 1979, after the peace treaty with Egypt, one hundred refugee fishing families were again evicted from their homes in the border town known as Swedish Camp.

While the Israeli Fishermen’s Union tries to eliminate their Gaza competition, the Histadrut corporation Tnuva has had government help to pressure Gazans to sell the corporation all of their sardine catch. Sardines make up about 75 percent of the Gaza catch and are marketed first to retailers in Gaza and the West Bank. Excess supplies are sold to small Israeli canning factories at prices higher than those paid by Tnuva. According to the head of the fishermen’s cooperative, since the al-‘Arish area was closed to Palestinians in April 1982, the catch has rarely exceeded 20 tons; in 1982-1983, no sardines were sold to Israeli factories. About 10 percent of the Gaza catch is succulent and expensive fish which are sold directly to Israeli restaurants. Under the present regime, fishermen must observe a dusk-to-dawn curfew: during the night they must remain off the beach, or at least two kilometers out at sea. Conviction for non-compliance carries heavy fines, and a confiscated boat is liable to be beached in a barbed-wire compound for up to six months.

These hardships seem to be causing a decrease in the number of working fishermen. The number of license holders declined from 1,400 in 1978 to only 1,000 in 1982, according to department of agriculture statistics. It is difficult for most to leave the sea, despite deteriorating conditions. Many are over 40 years old and illiterate; they have pulled their sons out of elementary school to work with them. Boats are typically owned jointly by several family members who have all their assets, and loans besides, tied up in the boats.

Ibrahim, 50, is typical.

We are from Majdal (Ashkelon). All my older brothers work in the sea and my father was a peasant, but he became a fisherman, too. Four of my sons work in the sea, the others are still too young. We all live in one house with five rooms, three by three meters, no courtyard. There’s three married sons and their wives and 19 children, three unmarried sons and three daughters, my wife and me. I didn’t go to school, thank God. Together we own one boat; we borrowed all the money in loans. This morning soldiers came. I was here before 4 am and they found me and took my ID, though I am an old man…. We only have enough money to eat — if there were many fish, life would be good.

Ibrahim is a member of the Fisherman’s Cooperative Society, established in 1973 (an earlier cooperative from the Egyptian era was closed down in 1967). It has organized a majority of the boat-owning families, provides equipment at wholesale prices, markets 90 percent of the catch, and offers insurance and no-interest loans. Political organizing, according to cooperative officials, is a difficult task owing to the fishermen’s lack of education and “fatalistic attitude.” [21]

“Autonomy,” Gaza-Style

Politically, the Israeli occupation returned Gaza to the early 1950s. Israeli military faces replaced Egyptian military faces in the directors’ offices of all public and social services. In 1973, in an early attempt at what later became known as “autonomy,” the authorities tried to form local legislative committees of collaborators in town quarters and the camps. When one committee head was assassinated and ex-mayor Rashad Shawwa, who had agreed to stand as committee head in his quarter, was also an assassination target, most committee members resigned.

Shawwa had been appointed mayor in 1971 and resigned the next year. In 1975 he agreed to resume his position. In 1976, when pro-PLO slates swept municipal elections in the West Bank, there was no similar opportunity for Gazans to challenge the power of traditional leaders like Shawwa. Popular sentiment, however, was undoubtedly a major factor in encouraging the mayor to pay lip service to the PLO from 1977 on. Post-election attempts in the West Bank to coordinate political activities led to the formation of the National Guidance Committee in 1978, which included one member from Gaza, Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi.

Gaza’s “official” stand against the Camp David Accords and in favor of an independent Palestinian state under PLO leadership came out clearly in a meeting in October 1978. Though some of Gaza’s population initially accepted Sadat’s 1977 trip to Jerusalem, they felt he “betrayed their rights in signing the Accord.” [22] This may have been the most politically representative meeting in Gaza since 1967, including mayors and municipal councils, professional and charitable societies and camp activists; it was also the last public political meeting allowed by the authorities.

The idea of “autonomy” resurfaced in the spring of 1979 when several Gazan merchants and professionals went to Cairo to discuss with Sadat his proposed “autonomy for Gaza first.” Shortly after their return to Gaza, delegation leader Sheikh Khuzandar and several other “collaborators” were assassinated.

Israeli attempts in the spring of 1982 to implement certain “autonomy” measures led to a Gaza counterpart of the West Bank’s “spring uprising.” In Gaza, this period was also marked by the return of northern Sinai to Egypt, which split the border town of Rafah in two: 5,000 Palestinians were restricted to the Egyptian side; several hundred Palestinian homes were destroyed. In July, the authorities dismissed Mayor Shawwa and the Gaza town council for “lack of cooperation” with the “civilian administration.” The Lebanon war created further disturbances throughout the summer, as Palestinians responded to the desperate situation with strikes and demonstrations.

Gaza has no daily newspaper, no municipal library, no secular university. Some organizations were banned at the beginning of the Israeli occupation; only those which seemed to pose no threat to the authorities have been permitted since then. In 1979-1980, about 80 new organizations, mainly charitable societies, perhaps hoping to benefit from “steadfastness funds,” rushed to open their doors. They received permission from the authorities, but were not allowed to accept funding and the majority never functioned. Despite such obstacles, though, local social service institutions have tried to foster a sense of national pride in traditional Palestinian culture, voluntary work groups have emphasized collective work, and the few national leaders known for their avowed support of the PLO are widely respected.

The most consistent social service organization with a nationalist leadership, the Red Crescent Society, chaired by Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi, was founded in 1970 “to make people aware of Palestinian cultural achievements, to bring out the positive aspects of Palestinian tradition and to combat the depression and demoralization of the occupation.” [23] The military authorities permitted the society to organize health and cultural functions, after a three-year wait for a license, but forbade it from undertaking social work.

In 1979, the authorities began issuing regulations banning public lectures, cultural exhibits, folklore festivals and voluntary work efforts. [24] They confined ‘Abd al-Shafi to travel within Gaza for three years. The authorities have restricted funding to cripple basic medical functions: at first, funds collected and deposited in Lebanon and Jordan were forbidden; later funds from Western donors were also banned. In 1982, the “civil administration” declared that contributions could be deposited in a special “development fund” from which the authorities would deduct up to 30 percent for “development projects”; the remainder would be available to the Red Crescent after a detailed list of expenditures was approved by the authorities. The society refused these terms. Five years ago, the society applied for a license to build a general hospital. It was never approved, although government hospitals in Gaza are among the worst in the occupied territories, and every year at least 2,000 patients have to go to Israel for treatment.

In 1980, the authorities allowed a mob of Muslim extremists to loot the Red Crescent center and burn books there. [25] In 1983, the military launched its own raid on the Red Crescent library, which is the largest lending library in Gaza; they selected 65 books off the shelves and the Red Crescent chairman is now awaiting trial for possession of “banned” books. Currently the society is plagued by debts, unable to pay employees’ salaries, except with locally collected donations and by raising medical fees. According to the latest report from the Red Crescent Society, “we believe there is plenty of room for social assistance…. However, in the face of the present difficulties, it is unreal to talk about development and growth.” [26]

Palestinian workers from the occupied territories in Israel are excluded from membership in the Histadrut (with the exception of annexed Jerusalem); Gazans lack even the limited trade union representation available in the West Bank. The General Federation of Trade Unions in Gaza, established under the Egyptian administration in 1964, was banned at the beginning of Israeli occupation. The federation’s six unions were resurrected by the military authorities in 1980, but not allowed to recruit new members (300 pre-1967 members still alive and residing in Gaza were re-registered), hold elections, celebrate May Day or hire staff. The authorities ordered the federation to alter its original symbol, a Palestinian flag between two ears of corn. The Israelis appointed the owner of Gaza’s aluminum kitchenware factory (and of several Mercedes taxis) as head of the federation.

In February 1983, an International Labor Organization delegation to the occupied territories told the federation’s executive members that they noticed no improvement in the situation since their visit three years earlier. In late April, an Israeli officer responded: Two restrictive orders formerly issued orally were now officially registered in two letters to the federation president. It is forbidden to register any worker without prior permission; and it is forbidden to hold any meeting without an Israeli officer present. Given these conditions, most workers don’t even know the “union” exists. The union office, usually closed, is just across the street from the main depot in Gaza’s downtown from which workers are transported to Israel.

Though the PLO was banned in 1967, its voice on national issues is as avidly followed in Gaza as in the West Bank. The PLO, however, never issued a program for social or economic reform under occupation. “Steadfastness” funds, from the Palestinian [PLO]-Jordanian Joint Committee, went primarily to maintain existing institutions and to reinforce the local class structure. This income produced few new jobs for Palestinians in Gaza. There was little effort, moreover, to find ways to redirect home the skilled workers in the Gulf, to encourage businessmen to reinvest locally, or to develop any alternative for laborers working in Israel. While businessmen in published interviews beg for money from outside to help prop up their ailing citrus industry, camp residents feel their needs have been neglected in the interests of the capitalists. “If I could earn a living in Gaza, I wouldn’t work in Israel,” is a typical comment in the camps. “We have steadfast people, but no steadfast organizations to support them…. Why do sports clubs in the camps, where everyone supports the PLO, get much less money from Amman than clubs owned by those rich townspeople?” [27] The recipients of Joint Committee funding most often mentioned by Gazans are the residents of the ritzy area of Gaza’s Rimal quarter, where the citrus and soft drink kings have built mansions on choice seafront property, far from the din of their refugee camp workers.

Another well-known and less controversial Joint Committee funded program has been the sponsorship of unemployed university graduates for two-year stints in UNRWA teaching schools. While this program has provided jobs for several dozen “steadfast teachers” at a time when UNRWA pleads financial difficulties, local UNRWA administrators have questioned the qualifications of the teachers. A two-year teaching internship in Gaza qualifies Palestinians for employment in Saudi Arabia, where many could head after finishing their steadfast stint, since there are few new teaching jobs in Gaza.

Jabalya Profiles

UNRWA runs the elementary and preparatory schools in the refugee camps. School officials say that lack of funds and denial of building permits from the authorities has caused them to have double shifts in the schools. There are 46 pupils in an average class, and when a teacher is absent, because there are no salaries for substitutes, there can be 90 children in a class.

At the beginning and end of school shifts, Jabalya camp throbs with thousands of blue-and-white pin-striped girls and variously dressed boys jamming the streets.

All of Abu Suhayl’s children have been in school since 7 am, except for three-year-old Hasan, now impatiently waiting to leave on a promised outing with his parents. Umm Suhayl pulls up his favorite pants — the ones with the pattern of European doll-like children playing with miniature tools, paintbrushes and ladders. Abu Suhayl, a skilled house painter, has taken the day off from work, without pay, for today’s errand. He finishes sweeping as Umm Suhayl finishes dressing her son and, after coffee, the three leave home. Na‘ama, the eldest daughter, dashes away from a bevy of pin-stripes and collides into her mother in the street. “Demonstrations,” she puffs with excitement, “Just the girls are out, the boys are still in school.” Her parents don’t approve. The protests began against the Israeli settler vigilantes in the West Bank, destruction of a row of homes in Shati’ (Beach) Camp a few miles away, and refusal of the military administration to release Jabalya high school students from an arbitrary lock-up for participating in earlier demonstrations. The demonstrations have become a threat to discipline, responsibility and studies.

Ordinarily, Abu Suhayl would give his daughter a lecture, but today he doesn’t have time for an argument. He and his wife are headed for their own appointment in the military court in Gaza. They continue down the camp’s badly pockmarked but paved main road — the only tarred path in this ghetto of 50,000 Palestinian refugees. They pass the unfinished UNRWA boys’ school on the right. The military authorities ordered work on the roof halted; they say the land under the school, in the center of the camp, is theirs. That’s what Abu Suhayl has heard. It makes his blood boil when he thinks about it: They took his family’s 15 acres in Dimra village, just over “the Green Line,” and now they come to this measly place of refuge and want that, too.

On the left is the dirt playing field, cleared by voluntary youth committees, and at the bend in the road, at one edge of the field, an abandoned tire blazes under a rusty car hood, abandoned even longer ago. Not unusual sights in Jabaliya camp.

The three take a shortcut across the field toward the market street: the yellow-domed mosque, UNRWA rations center and medical clinic, and the Israeli military compound face off at each corner of a triangle, and inside, taxis waiting to take passengers outside the camp race their motors. Abu Suhayl sees a driver he knows and the family gets into a cab. Only Hasan looks forward to the trip.

Like all other places, Jabalya camp has its seasons. Autumn and spring pass quickly here: Only summer and winter linger. A hot summer sun seems to set the tin roofs on fire. There is no shade. Trees are private possessions, locked behind the high cement walls that afford minimal privacy to neighbors wedged tight. An occasional breath of wind breaks the stillness, twirling dust and debris through open-toed sandals and through passing car windows. The house walls block this breeze. It feels hotter in the camps than anywhere else. A cloudless blue summer sky hovers over the open courtyards, changing hue as the day drags on.

In the winter, it can rain for three days. That’s good news for the farmers, but in the camp it fills the experienced ruts, and creates new ravines and small ponds in which unfriendly green organisms prosper and spread eye and intestinal infections among young children. Remembering the summer’s heat, they are glad to wade through the closest thing they’ve ever seen to a swimming pool.

Voluntary work committees have temporarily solved the problem of open sewers in some neighborhoods, digging troughs to route rainwater to the camp’s historic cesspool, “Abu Rashid’s.” Abu Rashid’s pool involves slime, dead cats, plastic wrappers and spare car parts. In the valley below three girls’ schools, Abu Rashid is a favorite playground for Jabalya children, who go there to jump rope, roll bicycle wheel rims and drag small siblings perilously close to the edge.

This is a must on every fact-finding tour’s speedy trip through a refugee camp; so many facts have been found out about Abu Rashid’s, one would think the situation would have improved. Jabalya residents say the money to dry up the sewage should come from UNRWA, UNRWA claims the responsibility lies with the adjacent village council, the council blames the military authorities for refusing to allow maintenance funding in from outside the country, and the military does not address camp residents on non-security matters.

Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Gaza was succinctly described in 1984 by one nationalist: “The absence of the fedayeen created a vacuum for young guys with nationalist feelings against the occupation. There were no political organizations or currents doing significant work here. We are not a secular society; everyone comes from a religious background, so their ideas were easy to assimilate. The success of the Muslim Brothers in Gaza lies in the loss of hope in the possible success of our issue and in a feeling of separation from other nations — no one supports us. People here feel a kind of depression and have given up and turned to God.”

The Brothers and smaller fundamentalist groupings organized themselves during the 1973-1979 period, according to local sources, and were clearly supported by the Israeli authorities to counter the national movement. They were allowed to hold large meetings and to receive money from Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The leaders, Palestinian women protesting the bad conditions for their sons at Ashkelon prison. some Egyptian-trained sheikhs, school teachers and doctors, organized primarily teenage boys at school, at the Islamic University, in mosques and in prison. Khomeini’s success in Iran was inspirational to them. Within a couple of years, however, they denounced Khomeini and launched an all-out attack against the PLO and its active supporters in Gaza.

The level of support for Muslim fundamentalism as a phenomenon is difficult to gauge because the line between religion and politics expressed in religious terms is a fine one. A resident of Shati’ camp, where the Brothers have had their strongest following, describes this confusion: “My father goes to the mosque and the sheikh who happens to be a leading Brother, tells him, ‘Your son doesn’t pray because he’s a Communist.’ They say we play sports in shorts, so we’re Communists. It’s not a religious matter; it’s party affiliation. But most people, like my father, don’t know what Communists are, except that they’re people against religion, so this has caused problems between the older generation and younger people who want to make changes.“

For the time being, it seems that the Muslim Brothers and other fundamentalist groups have failed to acquire popular support. Signs of this are their need to turn to brutal physical attacks against camp residents in 1983 and bloody clashes at Islamic University (a stronghold) and Birzeit University in the West Bank, where they traveled by bus (through Israeli checkpoints) to avenge themselves against the nationalists. In summer 1984, the Israeli military authorities arrested a dozen-member fundamentalist cell in Gaza for arms possession. Not only did nationalist activists in Gaza fret that the arms were intended for them after hearing rumors of a “hit list,” but military officials mentioned the presence of such a list in interviews with several Gazans.

Slogans on the walls of Gaza camps and villages in June 1983 equated the Brothers with the Village Leagues on the West Bank. When thugs marched in 1984 through Jabalya refugee camp to threaten one man accused of “support for nationalist students,” neighbors turned out to drive them off. According to camp residents, small boys threw stones at those identified as fundamentalists, even as they do against the soldiers of the occupation forces.

What Next for Gaza?

In the aftermath of the Lebanon invasion, occupation authorities called in Gaza residents from all walks of life for questioning about their relations with the authorities and their reactions to the war. According to one camp resident, “It seemed like they were looking for collaborators to replace the PLO. They offered to make things better in the camps.” One Gaza lawyer reported being told, “Now you don’t have to be afraid of the PLO. You can be with us.”

Fear of the Israeli military authorities in Gaza, particularly since Sharon’s 1971 “pacification” program, is much more apparent in Gaza than in the West Bank. But despite this it has been difficult for the authorities to locate overt political collaborators.

Not all Gazans respond to the occupation as directly as men like Ibrahim Jabir Hamad al-Raqab, 30, from the village of Bani Suhayla. If the charges against him are true, he belonged “to a Palestinian organization, assassinated a number of suspected collaborators, planted a bomb in Tel Aviv which injured four Israelis, planted a bomb in Khan Yunis which injured an army officer and four soldiers, tossed a bomb at a military patrol in Khan Yunis and threw another bomb at an army vehicle in the center of Gaza.” [28] Beyond this militancy, and that of the mass demonstrations in the camps, Gaza’s community leaders have condemned the occupation in the strongest terms. But this rhetoric is not backed by sustained, organized opposition. A realistic assessment of the present state of the national movement and its leadership crisis indicates there is little chance of successfully challenging the occupation in the short run. For the longer term, the only successful challenge will come when local leadership, here and in the West Bank, develops a social and economic strategy that reflects the needs of the majority, particularly those neglected by traditional political structures: camp dwellers, women and workers. The professional and charitable societies in Gaza that currently serve as de facto national institutions are town-based and have, for the most part, sustained traditional leadership patterns without concern for grassroots organizing.

Camp dwellers, today about half of the population, because of their complete disenfranchisement and difficult living conditions, willingly turn out for demonstrations at times of crisis, repeatedly show their toughness through long curfews and proudly raise sons ready to risk their lives in acts of militant resistance. Few, however, are organized to improve the quality of life in the camps or to militate for social reforms. During the spring of 1982, several intellectuals in the West Bank suggested that popular-based organizations be formed to mobilize for massive civil disobedience. This notion remains largely untested in Gaza.

Strikes that have taken place in recent years, such as the open-ended merchants and professionals strike in December 1981 and the protest against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, illustrate problems of organizing. The merchants and professionals called for a strike supported by the municipality, following arrests of two doctors for refusing to pay a new tax on independent professionals’ services, and the appointment of Yusef Luntz as first “civil administrator” for Gaza. The strike “illegally” shut Gaza’s towns for periods ranging from several days to two weeks. The authorities responded with large-scale arrests and welding shut dozens of shops for an extended period. The merchants and professionals realized they were not prepared to face further consequences and were not properly coordinated to continue the strike, so they ended it abruptly. Had the strike been supported by workers who would refuse to work in Israel, reasoned some merchants, it would have been more successful. But when workers did strike during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, there was no offer of material support for the families who depend on daily wage labor. The longest reported workers’ strike at that time occurred in Abasan, a family farming village where political organizing was relatively more successful because of the close community atmosphere and an abundant food supply.

Because the majority of the population are landless urban residents or camp dwellers, there has been little mass response to the specific Israeli settlements in Gaza, although students have demonstrated against Israeli policies, in general, including settlements and recent attempts at Palestinian resettlement. This could change as settlements encroach on the land adjoining the camps. In 1982, residents of Rafah protested when their land, trees and homes were threatened by establishment of “security zones” at the Egyptian border. Young residents of nearby Rafah refugee camps observed that it was rare for the sons of landlords to demonstrate opposition to the occupation.

Voluntary work committees try to promote social and community awareness while performing basic self-help civic services like street sweeping, digging sewage troughs, building playgrounds, repairing homes and helping prisoners’ families. The committees, like similar groups in the West Bank, have met with some success, but here they still encounter distrust and suspicion. Some residents assume the volunteers are paid UNRWA employees, and others fear arrest for participating in such projects.

Organizing workers in Gaza has been particularly difficult. As many as 10,000 Palestinians who work in Israel sleep there as well, and return home, at most, one day a week. Those who return daily are physically and psychologically exhausted from the difficult conditions of work and transport. They are aware of the problems in the camps, villages or town quarters where they live, but have little time or energy to deal with them. There is no organization that can assist them with their problems as workers. The national conflict overshadows class concerns in popular consciousness. Even workers in Gaza factories who know that they are being exploited by Palestinian capitalists have no recognized organization to defend their interests. Interest in organizing workers has been left to the Palestine Communist Party and interested members of the Popular and Democratic Fronts, who altogether are very few and must operate clandestinely.

Some activists in Gaza suggest that a program of economic and social reform could be devised and implemented to provide a local livelihood for those who work in Israel, jobs for women, and repatriation of skilled workers and professionals from the Gulf. No one, though, seems able to predict where, when or how change could come. On the positive side, the fact that Gaza students can no longer study in Egypt and must rely on West Bank universities or the local Islamic University is helping to end Gaza’s isolation from the rest of the Palestinian community and allowing students to maintain close ties with developments at home. Students from Gaza at West Bank institutions since 1978 have already begun to participate in research studies that include both areas, and have attempted joint voluntary work camps, despite harassment from the authorities.

Camp women spend most of their lives within the confines of the camps and remain unorganized. Those women who have entered the Gaza or Israeli work force as laborers are more exploited economically than men and have less support at home for their problems. Most working women are young and unmarried, widowed or divorced; they are working out of dire necessity. There are few sources of employment for professional women outside of teaching and health care. In conformity with society’s perspective of women’s roles, youth clubs and work committees are for men only. The low level of household technology, crowded and unsanitary living conditions, and the absence of adequate daycare and kindergarten facilities further impedes women’s participation. As employment in the Gulf decreases rapidly for men and there are still teaching jobs there for women, there is greater pressure on women in the camps to marry early to get their husbands into Saudi Arabia to work.

“Women must get into the streets, making decisions as a delegation,” advocates Mary Khass, supervisor of UNRWA’s pre-school program and a strong feminist. “They can start with health issues — community improvements, sewerage, rubbish collection…. The Israelis will not arrest women for struggling for cleanliness in the streets.” Some courageous women in their twenties and thirties are now in the first stages of trying to establish women’s committees, but practical work is at an embryonic level. The most openly active women have already been in prison, or have a brother or husband in prison. Not only do these committees have a long way to go in struggling against the occupation; they have great challenges to meet from their own society. Many committee members keep their work secret from family members to avoid confrontations at home. The main efforts so far have been stitching traditional embroidered dresses (an acceptable task for women in preserving national culture but not a challenge to women’s roles), prisoners’ support work and establishing one functioning day care center. The women’s committees are offshoots of similar groups organized in the West Bank since 1978, and are organized in conjunction with the major PLO organizations and the Communist Party.

Political Aspirations

In Gaza’s camps there is still a large body of refugees demanding a return to their villages. An independent West Bank-Gaza state, they reason, would perpetuate their landlessness. The yearning for a home and identity has not diminished through the years of exile. While second generation refugees may not desire to return to a particular plot of land, they share the demand of a 23-year-old Burayj camp woman for “a life without ID cards, where I can live anywhere in my country that I choose.” Most camp residents support one or another group of the PLO, though not necessarily through familiarity with its current political line. In the absence of any legal rallying place for collective expression of national identity, weddings in the camps have become occasions of boisterous support for the PLO, or particular groups, through songs and speeches.

The idea of an independent Palestinian state in some form in the West Bank and Gaza, within the 1947 partition lines or in any other configuration, is most appealing to the indigenous residents of Gaza. But political affiliation is important; it can be as much a determinant as class or residence status. A few lone voices have come out for a West Bank-Gaza-Jordan federation either with joint PLO-Jordanian leadership or under King Hussein. These are the opinions of some of the capitalists and large merchants, led by ex-Mayor Rashad Shawwa, who, in an interview last October, described the agreement between Egypt and Jordan as “the only positive step that Palestinians and Arabs have taken since 1967.”

Most of the people of Gaza totally distrust American-inspired talk of peace negotiations and do not believe that a solution is near. While the international political arena shows no reason to hope for solutions with the current balance of power in the Middle East, one local analyst opined: “The problems in the PLO since 1982 let people think more about Palestinian politics than about the occupation. It will be a long time before Palestinians will be one unit.”

A recent increase in military operations in Gaza is likely to continue, as is mass protest over harsh Israeli collective retaliatory measures. There has been a noticeable increase in the number of incidents by teenage boys, not officially organized or trained by a PLO organization — one need only visit a lawyer’s office or consult the military court records to see the figures. Children who have grown up under the irrationality and lawlessness of military occupation, working their adolescence away in Israeli fields and shops, losing a father to war or emigration, who see no future in education, who are arrested and imprisoned with older men serving life sentences and arrested and imprisoned again — these children grow up eager to learn street fighting tactics. As economic conditions in Israel worsen, and this is reflected in more layoffs of workers in Gaza and greater restraints on Gazan industry, and while there is no acceptable negotiated solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, tomorrow’s Gaza could well replicate today’s Soweto, “a place whose contradictions those who impose them don’t see and from where will come a resolution they haven’t provided for.” [29]


[1] Nadine Gordimer, Burger’s Daughter.
[2] Information on the economy, 1948 to 1967, UNRWA and refugee displacement is taken from several interviews with former UNRWA administrators and teachers, most of whom asked to remain anonymous.
[3] UNRWA has been appreciated for its social welfare services, education and opportunities for employment for refugees for more than 30 years. Criticism of the institution’s political role has also been widespread among the refugee population and among Palestinian administrators and staff. The main accusations have been: UNRWA works to resettle the displaced population rather than to represent their political rights and deal with the cause of exile; because the educational system must comply with that of the “host” country, Palestinian history and analysis appropriate to the refugee experience is not part of the curriculum; years of rations handouts has created a beggar mentality and preempted community-based self-reliant development; UNRWA’s presence and financing frees the occupation authority from its responsibility to provide basic services to the majority of the occupied population.
[4] Interview with Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi, August 1984.
[5] Interview with Muhammad al-Batrawi, 1983.
[6] ‘Abdallah Frangi, The PLO and Palestine (London: Zed Press, 1983).
[7] Khalil Aweida, former UNRWA education field officer, Gaza, interview, 1983.
[8] Frangi, p. 102.
[9] Quoted in William Harris, Taking Root: Israeli Settlements in the West Bank, the Golan and Gaza Strip, 1967-1980 (Research Studies Press, 1980), p. 40.
[10] Harris, p. 42.
[11] Ma’ariv, February 16, 1983.
[12] From an interview conducted in a Gaza camp, 1981.
[13] The Bank of Palestine was allowed to reopen in 1980, after 13 years’ closure, linked to the Israeli Bank Hapoalim, and not allowed to deal in foreign currency.
[14] Meron Benvenisti, interviewed in spring 1984. His source is military government of Gaza annual reports.
[15] Based on combined data from the Khan Younis municipality, Gaza Benevolent Society, Gaza Lawyers’ Union and several large landowners. There is no central Palestinian source of information in Gaza on land ownership. The Palestinian employees in the Israeli-administered department of agriculture would not release figures.
[16] “The development of a tourist center of the seashore has begun” (from Gaza Regional Council brochure). Neve Dekalim, in the Katif bloc, describes itself in publicity material as “the large resort village that’s in the final stages.”
[17] Reuven Rosenblatt, director of Neve Dekalim settlement, interviewed in 1983.
[18] Information and figures on the citrus industry varies depending on whom one speaks to. There is no absolutely reliable set of statistics on Gaza’s economy and labor force. Much of the information in this section was based on an interview with ‘Abd al-Latif Abu Madayin, head of Gaza Citrus Marketing Association, 1984.
[19] According to Abu Madayin, the initial conditions were: No local loans could be obtained; only 25 percent of the production could go to the West Bank and Gaza, and the rest to the Arab world and eastern Europe. “We agreed, but then they refused…. Then someone in Gaza decided to buy an existing Israeli factory in early 1983. New conditions were imposed: no machinery can be replaced or reshaped from this factory, it must be located in the Israeli industrial area of Nahal Oz, transfer of ownership to a company or corporation is not allowed, for the first five years the factory would be under the full control of the military government authorities. This could mean that the owner would have to take fruit from an Israeli kibbutz, for example, rather than from Gaza, if he were so told. With such conditions, he changed his mind about starting the factory.” According to Al-Fajr (English) October 1985, Rashad Shawwa got a license to build an orange press factory several months ago.
[20] Jerusalem Post, May 11, 1983.
[21] Abu Ahmad, 44, “We started to hate the sea.” Or Abu Isma‘il, 46, “We don’t own the sea, like the peasant owns the land.”
[22] Interview with member of the board, Red Crescent Society of Gaza (RCS), 1978. A second meeting to discuss Camp David, scheduled for November 1978 at the RCS, was banned.
[23] Twelfth Annual Report of the RCS, Gaza (no date given, printed either 1982 or 1983).
[24] While the military authorities have banned small cultural gatherings at the Red Crescent, they allowed the Gaza Benevolent Society, chaired by Mayor Shawwa, to build a Saudi-funded multi-million dollar cultural complex next to Gaza military headquarters. The complex contains a library, theater, computerized printing press and restaurant, but has not yet opened.
[25] The crowd, estimated at 500 by observers, passed by the local police station one block from the Red Crescent headquarters. The looting and burning followed closely after elections to the executive committee, where fundamentalists won only four seats of 21. A second mysterious arson of the Red Crescent library took place later that year.
[26] Annual Report RCS.
[27] (a) Worker, Jabalya camp; (b) Birzeit University student from Bayt Hanoun village; (c) UNRWA camp sports club director.
[28] Al-Fajr (English), September 20, 1985.
[29] Gordimer, p. 152.

How to cite this article:

Joan Mandell "Gaza: Israel’s Soweto," Middle East Report 136/137 (October-December 1985).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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