GAZA'S BURDEN WEIGHS HEAVILY ON ISRAEL Recent killings renew talk of ending occupation


JERUSALEM -- A spate of killings has again prompted Israel to ask how it can rid itself of the Gaza Strip.

The stabbing Monday of 11 Israelis in Tel Aviv by a Gaza worker and the mob-led slaying of a Jew in a Gaza Strip refugee camp the next day have renewed calls in Israel that the 25-year occupation of the Gaza Strip be ended.

The strip, a pathway for warriors between Asia and Africa for three millenniums, is inhabited by about 775,000 Palestinians, more than half a million of them refugees from Arab-Israeli wars since 1948, and their children and grandchildren. It is one of the most heavily populated, squalid places in the world.

"We cannot solve the problem of Gaza," Health Minister Haim Ramon said yesterday. "Israel should declare it will withdraw unilaterally."

Such calls have drawn a chorus of agreement-- and dissent-- amid frustration at the increasing violence in Gaza.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who said recently that he wished Gaza would drop into the sea, would like to disengage from the tar baby of Gaza. But he wants withdrawal as part of a peace agreement with Palestinians, who refuse to treat Gaza separately from the occupied West Bank. An agreement does not seem near.

"There is no escaping recognizing the fact that a solution to this is first of all political," Mr. Rabin said this week.

Israeli troops have ruled the thin, crowded strip on the Mediterranean coast 35 miles south of Tel Aviv since 1967. The occupation has strangled its economy and led to impoverishment and violence among the Palestinians there.

On Monday, a Gaza worker said to be frustrated by unemployment killed two Israelis and wounded nine on a busy Tel Aviv street. On Tuesday, a Jewish utility worker mistakenly drove into the Rafah refugee camp and was stoned and then shot to death.

The latest attacks prompted another of the frequent closings of the Gaza Strip, barring from their jobs the 30,000 Palestinians whose work in Israel is the economic lifeblood for the area.

Authorities said yesterday that they would lift the restrictions Monday. But they promised new restrictions that will further cut the number of workers allowed to leave Gaza. That number is already down to half of its peak of 60,000.

This week's attacks also have prompted Israeli settlers' groups to urge Jews to open fire whenever their cars are hit with stones thrown by Palestinians.

A motorist near Jerusalem did that Tuesday, shortly before the settlers' groups made their call, and killed a bystander, a 75-year-old Palestinian.

Many Jewish civilians carry guns, and Israeli security authorities reportedly are worried about vigilante shootings. The police surprised Palestinians by making an arrest in the Tuesday shooting last night. A 33-year old Israeli truck driver who said he fired five shots at stone throwers is being held.

"The law permits use of a weapon only in a life-threatening situation," said Ehud Barak, the army chief of staff. "The conditions during which a civilian can open fire are defined in law and absolutely clear."

But political figures in Israel acknowledged that the Gaza Strip will continue to produce violence and misery as long as the resented occupation continues.

"The situation is intolerable and cannot continue," said Shlomo Buhbut, a Labor Party member of the Knesset, or parliament. "It may cause a second Lebanon. . . . There is no other alternative [but withdrawal] for the sake of peace."

Mr. Ramon, who first advocated withdrawal in 1987, said that if no peace agreement can be reached with the Palestinians, Israel should announce a scheduled withdrawal from Gaza within a year or two.

"The occupation of the Gaza Strip is damaging Israel militarily, economically, socially and humanely," he said in an interview yesterday. "The frustration is growing."

But withdrawal would bring many problems, say critics of such a move. Gaza, which is not patrolled by the army, could become a center for terrorism, as it was before Israel captured the territory from Egypt in 1967, they say, and, if sealed off from Israel at its borders, could fall into even more desperate economic straits.

"It's very easy to wash one's hands of this collection of human suffering and thereby ignore responsibility for its creation," columnist Meron Benvinisti wrote in the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz.

There also is the question of who would take Gaza. Israel does not want it to become the nucleus of a Palestinian state, but neighboring Egypt, which administered the strip from 1948 to 1967, does not want to get back an area of festering social problems.

Israel's right wing, which has at times considered Gaza a part of a "greater Israel," says more force, not withdrawal, is needed to ,, meet the violence in Gaza.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the leading candidate to lead the opposition Likud bloc in the next election, called for a "doubling and tripling" of the arming of Israelis in response to the recent attacks.

Gonen Segev, a Knesset member from the conservative Tsomet party, called the idea of withdrawal "absurd."

"Gaza is part of Israel," he said. "The moment the standard of living of the residents there improves, things will get better. If we withdraw from Gaza, there will be murders of thousands of residents."

Rarely mentioned in the debate are the 18 small Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, armed camps surrounded by barbed wire and electric fences where 3,500 to 5,000 settlers live.

Most settlers moved there to stake a Jewish claim to the Gaza Strip. Any attempt to evict them forcibly would recall the political anguish of the removal of Israeli settlers from the Sinai Peninsula when it was returned to Egypt more than a decade ago as part of the Camp David accords.

"We cannot run away from the real problem, which is the Palestinian problem," said Batya Hershkowitz, a spokeswoman for the Gaza Coast Regional Council, a settlers' group. "We must live here and see to it that terrorist organizations do not murder."

The prospect of further internal bloodletting among factions in .. Gaza also has given the Palestinians pause. Disputes between the mainstream Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization and fundamentalist Muslim followers of Hamas have resulted in killings, and some have predicted a fierce struggle for control in Gaza if the Israelis leave.

"If Israel withdraws from Gaza without prior notice, it will be a criminal act," said Haydar Abd al-Shafi, head of the Palestinian peace negotiators and a Gaza resident, said this week.

"Palestinians are not enthusiastic" about withdrawal, said Palestinian journalist Nasser Atta. They do not want Israel to shed Gaza without giving autonomy to the West Bank, he said, since Gaza must depend on the West Bank for political stability and economic support.

"There's no economic base in Gaza to support the population. There's not enough land. There's no industrial base," he said. "You have to have a comprehensive solution."

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