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Hardships Rally Palestinians


SINCE the Palestinian uprising began on the dusty streets in front of his home in Gaza's Jabaliya refugee camp, Iyad, a father of 12, has had his share of troubles. His eldest son was killed two weeks after the intifadah (uprising) began while leading a stone-throwing attack against an Israeli military compound. Another son received three gunshot wounds, while nine other children have either been beaten, tear-gassed, or both in clashes with Israeli soldiers.

Following his own run-in with Israeli authorities this year, Iyad was forced to sell his taxi to raise money to pay steep new intifadah taxes, leaving the family with no means of support.

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``It has been difficult,'' he says.

Iyad represents but one slice of the grim life that pervades this uninviting stretch of coastal land, first occupied by Israel in 1967. In December 1987, a combustible mix of poverty and hatred of Israel's 20-year occupation was ignited in Jabaliya by a restive young generation of Palestinians. The rebellion that followed quickly spread through Gaza and to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Thirty months later, the conditions that produced the intifadah have grown dangerously worse, creating new hardships and nourishing political extremism that threatens to put a settlement to the long Israeli-Palestinian conflict completely out of reach.

``Living conditions have grown worse and people have grown increasingly alienated,'' says an official of the United Nations Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA).

Driving through this 28-by-5 mile swath of despair, a visitor looks in vain for a respite from deprivation. Nearly 700,000 people are packed into Gaza, over 60 percent in squalid UN refugee camps.

Even before the intifadah, overcrowding produced grinding poverty. In the past 30 months, matters have steadily deteriorated.

Up to 60,000 Gazans - just over half the territory's work force - once earned their living working at the menial construction and service jobs in Israel that produced most of Gaza's income. But tight new intifadah-related restrictions have cut by one-third the number of Gazans allowed to cross into Israel.

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With fewer jobs and with almost no economic activity in Gaza to fall back on, per capita income has dropped by nearly half since the start of the uprising, putting many Gazans at the financial breaking point, according to the UNRWA source.

Yousef, an electrician with two children, used to earn $40 a day working in Israel. His travel pass to Israel now revoked because he has participated in anti-Israeli demonstrations, Yousef says he now earns between $5 and $10 a day doing odd jobs in Gaza.

``I get by,'' he says unconvincingly. ``I have to.''

Economic hardship has been aggravated by collective punishments imposed by Israel to control the uprising, including lengthy curfews. Worst of all, Gazans say, are the huge tax bills - often up to four times normal rates - which have become a major weapon in Israel's arsenal.

Nor has Gaza suffered at the hands of Israel alone. The Palestine Liberation Organization, according to a senior PLO official here, donates only $2 to Gaza for every $5 to the West Bank.

To ease the suffering, Gazans have loosened their embrace of the PLO and increasingly turned to Muslim fundamentalism.

``Who can rescue us?'' asks a Jabaliya mother, voicing a despair that has become almost universal here. ``Only Allah can help us.''

The shifting balance of political power in Gaza was graphically illustrated last week when fundamentalists won an upset victory in elections for UNRWA's workers' committee, long a stronghold of secular Palestinian nationalism.

With 4,200 UNRWA employees, the elections provided the largest poll since the start of the uprising, prompting speculation that, if they agreed to participate, Muslim factions could win in elections called for by a year-old Israeli peace initiative.

``It confirms a trend,'' says an Israeli Army source, who estimates that more than half of Gaza residents support either the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) or Islamic Jihad.

Unlike the PLO, which advocates a two-state (Arab and Jewish) solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Muslim fundamentalists demand an Islamic state, while some Islamic extremists advocate expelling Jews from Palestine.

So far, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have operated independently. But Gaza sources say younger activists are pressing for a union that would strengthen the hold of the Muslim leaders.

``With peace prospects getting to nil, one would expect that there will be a continuing change toward religious fundamentalism,'' says Haidar Abd Ashafi, head of the Red Crescent Society.

``It means the thinking of the people is going toward Islam as a way of life,'' adds a Gaza journalist of the UNRWA election results. ``I expect that someday, not far in the future, Muslim fundamentalists will dominate Gaza.''

In a glossy promotional booklet issued on the eve of the intifadah, Israel's civil administration, which runs the territories, took credit for improving living conditions in Gaza and the West Bank. Since the start of the occupation, street lights have been installed and even the refugee camps have phones and TV sets.

But a Gaza source responds that such improvements have merely ``modernized poverty'' without creating conditions for economic growth. Israel strictly controls Gaza's commerce and fishing industry, for example, stunting expansion. And like West Bankers, Gazans pay far more in taxes to the civil administration than they get back in services, notes the source.

Back in Jabaliya, Iyad and his family of 12 insist that such inequities only sharpen their determination to sustain their long struggle against Israeli rule.

``I'm determined to live like this, even if I have to eat bread and salt,'' Iyad says. ``We've walked more than half of the road; we are not going back to the beginning.''

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