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Anarchy fear spurs Palestinians to gather guns


GAZA CITY, Israeli-Occupied Gaza Strip -- Soon after Monsour Shawa was appointed mayor of Gaza City, a friend called to congratulate him and recommend a first order of business: Buy a gun.

"He offered to sell me one -- a 9-millimeter automatic," said the prominent Gaza businessman. "I said, 'What's the price?' When he told me, I said, 'No, thank you, I'll take my chances.' " The price: $3,500.

But while the cost of weaponry is soaring -- just three months ago, a 9-millimeter pistol went for a third that sum -- Gaza's black market in illegal arms is booming. The reason: fear.

Unlike Mr. Shawa, Palestinians throughout the occupied territories have been scrambling to stock up on pistols, machine guns, assault rifles and ammunition in recent months, most of them desperate for a measure of personal protection in advance of Israel's promised withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho.

For Israel, the weapons proliferation illustrates an issue that has been central to the delay in its troop withdrawal.

Partly out of fear of an even larger influx of firepower into their back yard, Israeli negotiators have been insisting that their troops maintain military control of the border crossings into the new Palestinian entity. The Palestinians have insisted that policing the borders is critical to their new autonomy.

At the core of the growing gun problem in the territories is a concern as human as it is political. It is the shared worry among Israelis and Palestinians that the dawning of a new age of autonomy after nearly three decades under strict military occupation will bring a new era of anarchy as well.

"There is a lot of confusion and fear in Gaza for ordinary people," explained Mr. Shawa.

"It is a fear of the unknown, a fear that, if there is no law, no order, no one to settle feuds, there is going to be a period of trouble. People are desperate to have protection."

The run on guns in Gaza has driven the price of a U.S.-made M-16 rifle to nearly $9,000 -- a jump of $2,000 in two months. A Russian-made AK-47 goes for $6,500. The price of a single bullet that sells for 30 cents in Israel now costs $4 in the occupied territories.

Many Palestinians, and some Israeli lawmakers, blame the Israeli military for the proliferation of arms. Israeli troops still control the territories' borders, and critics assert that border guards deliberately permit the weapons and ammunition to pass through their checkpoints from Egypt and Jordan. In a land where such conspiracy theories are common after 27 years of sometimes-harsh military occupation, those critics suggest that the Israeli aim is to fuel future infighting among the territories' many Palestinian factions.

Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur flatly denied that charge last week, and sources in the Israel Defense Forces called the allegation "absurd."

Mr. Gur's denial, delivered in the Israeli parliament reflected the elevation of the gun issue to an integral part of Israel's peace process debate.

Responding to charges by Israeli legislators that the army is ignoring the arms surge in the territories, Mr. Gur confirmed that Palestinians in the territories are stockpiling weapons. But he insisted that the Israel Defense Forces are working hard to track down and destroy arms caches in Gaza and the West Bank.

"How can you even conceive of such a thing?" Mr. Gur asked the legislators who raised the issue. "Is it even conceivable that we would treat a flow of weapons to the Gaza Strip calmly, when our soldiers are in the strip and fighting in it?"

In fact, Mr. Gur said, the military is intensifying its weapons searches throughout the territories.

There was ample evidence in recent weeks to support his assertion. But Palestinian critics say some of those same examples support their claim that the hunt has been discriminatory and ineffective, in some cases amounting to harassment.

Many Palestinians do not blame Israel's security forces alone for the recent arms flow into the territories. Some leveled charges of negligence against the leaders of several Palestinian factions represented in Gaza, particularly Yasser Arafat's Fatah wing. That faction will supply most of the officers in the Palestinian police force planned for control of law and order in Gaza and Jericho as Israel withdraws.

Much of the worry is grounded in ancient family feuds that have simmered beneath the surface of Gaza's society throughout the occupation. Israel's military presence, combined with a shared commitment among most Gazans to join forces against a more powerful common enemy, froze most of those feuds in place.

"But the memory is long in Gaza," Mr. Shawa said. "Maybe it was a woman, maybe a rape, maybe a piece of land. Maybe it happened 30 years ago, or maybe 300. But everyone here remembers. Now that guns are everywhere here . . . these feuds easily could explode the moment the common enemy is gone."

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