Wednesday, 2 March 2005

Palestinians keep the peace in Gaza

Calm has returned as security forces show their determination to stop militants

Wednesday, March 2, 2005 - Page A11

Special to The Globe and Mail

KHAN YOUNIS, GAZA STRIP -- From September, 2000, Palestinian militants in Khan Younis launched daily mortar attacks at the Israeli settlement of Neve Dekalim, only a few hundred metres away.

They sent suicide bombers to attack settlers and soldiers, fired at their houses and cars with Kalashnikovs, drove bomb-laden jeeps into their buses and tunnelled beneath their fortifications to detonate explosives.

In response, the Israelis ringed the city with concrete and barbed wire roadblocks. Soldiers' guns poke out from between the sandbags of fortified positions. Israeli troops have invaded the outskirts of the town, razing homes and buildings that could be used to fire on the soldiers and settlers. They have uprooted olive groves and orchards, "shaving" the land to deprive the militants of cover.

Now, after four years of bloody violence, Khan Younis is quiet. And Major Mahmoud Massoud, who commands a patrol of the Palestinian National Security Forces in a neighbourhood called Hayal al-Amal, wants to keep it that way.

"The people here want calm," Major Massoud said, reflecting on the climate of hope that has spread through Gaza since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made clear his determination to withdraw from the territory and dismantle Jewish settlements there."After four years they are tired. They also want Israel to do the same thing, to stop the fighting and withdraw.

"We all accept the new policy of our government, and we welcome the Israeli decision to withdraw from Gaza. People are happy now. They want to feel freedom and liberty, an end to occupation."

Major Massoud, whose police station was destroyed by Israeli warplanes in 2001 after a Palestinian terror attack, runs his operation from a rundown shack of cinder blocks and corrugated iron.

His men patrol a half-kilometre stretch where the 170,000 residents of Khan Younis face Neve Dekalim, the largest settlement in Gaza with 2,700 inhabitants.

This is where Israeli tanks used to rumble into town, and where masked Palestinians used to pour out of jeeps to fire off a hasty mortar round before diving back into the crowded streets.

Major Massoud's force has grown from three to 30 men since last month's summit meeting between Mr. Sharon and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. They have new Mitsubishi jeeps and now patrol 24 hours a day.

They would like a real police station to replace their tatty shack, and radios to use instead of their own cellphones. But orders from Mr. Abbas to halt the attacks by militants are already being put into effect.

Last week, a car full of masked men pulled up after midnight with a mortar ready to launch at the settlement. Major Massoud said his men were on the scene in seconds.

"We went to them and talked to them," he said. "We said we are in a period of tahdiyeh [calm], and their actions will affect the peace process. They got back in their car and drove away. I don't know what happened after that.

"Our orders are to talk to them, to stop anyone trying to launch missiles. If they don't listen, our orders are to call our commanders and they will deal with them.

"But we would use force if we have to, even if I have to shoot at them."

Major Massoud, 56, was born in the Jabalya refugee camp north of Gaza City. He left for Lebanon in 1967 and joined guerrillas of the Palestine Liberation Organization, returning to Gaza in 1994. After decades of struggle, he said, it was time to stop the fighting.

Jamil Bakr, an 18-year-old student from the neighbourhood, said the local people support the security forces. "They keep us safe," he said. "This will help us to gain our freedom."

South of Khan Younis, along a road that passes through the fields and white-domed greenhouses of the Morag settlement, is a favourite spot for mortar and gun attacks. This sector is under the command of Lieutenant Rami Kandil, who is 22 years old and a contemporary of the militants. He and his men have been on 24-hour patrol here since the summit.

"We were out on patrol near Gadid settlement one night last week when we found a group trying to launch a Kassam rocket," Lt. Kandil said. "We confronted the group and confiscated their weapons. They ran away.

"Our obligation is to stop the rockets and missiles. If I have to arrest them, I will, but I won't shoot at them."

He added: "We feel we are protecting the agreements reached by our political leaders. We are sometimes criticized by our friends who ask why we want to protect the Israelis, but this is the way we can achieve security."

With his young colleagues nodding in agreement, Lt. Kandil continued: "After four years of fighting, everyone is tired. The people want to start a new stage in their lives."

In the town's security headquarters, Colonel Jamal Kayed, commander of the Palestinian National Security Forces for the southern Gaza Strip, fingered a set of wooden prayer beads and offered coffee to his guests.

He has been in the job just two weeks. Mr. Abbas fired his predecessor and dozens of senior officers last month for failing to halt the mortar fire.

"We are under strict orders to prevent infiltration to the Israeli side, to stop the firing of missiles and stop the firing of mortars," he said. "But we must also see something from the Israelis so the people feel that the situation has really changed and they can live peacefully in their own homes."

Col. Kayed was born in 1958 in Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon. He fought with the PLO and attended military training schools in Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, India and Pakistan before returning to Gaza with the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 1994.

He said he and the 2,451 men he commands would preserve the fragile calm until Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza in July. Then he plans to lead them as they take control of the newly liberated lands.

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