GAZA CITY, JAN. 6 -- It was a cat-and-mouse day for Palestinian youths and Israeli soldiers in downtown Gaza City today, and the merchants of Omar el Mukhtar Street were the cheese.
When they arrived early this morning, the merchants were greeted by masked young men carrying stones who told them to keep their shops closed as part of a general strike. A few hours later, Israeli soldiers in purple berets and armed with automatic rifles ordered them to reopen. When the soldiers left, the Palestinian youths quickly returned and ordered them to close again.
"You tell me, what can I do?" said the glum-looking manager of the Dador Trading Center. He pointed to the scarred hinges on his sheet metal doors that soldiers had pried open with a crowbar, then to the fresh glass in a window that youths had smashed with a rock a few days before.
"I am twisted from all sides. Every day it's open and close, open and close. If everything is closed here, why does the Army tell me to open?"
In Jerusalem today, the government reacted with what officials called a "low key" statement of "regret and disappointment" to yesterday's U.S. vote in favor of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel's plan to expel nine Palestinian activists. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said, however, that the vote was "a serious kind of deviation from the framework of our relations with the United States."
But here in the occupied Gaza Strip, where there were more incidents of stone throwing and tire burning for the fourth day following the announcement of the expulsions, the diplomatic maneuvers seemed distant.
Gaza these days is a land of angry youths and determined soldiers locked in a confrontation of Palestinian stones and gasoline bombs against Israeli tear gas, rubber bullets and, at times, live ammunition. At least 24 Palestinians have died here and in the West Bank and more than 180 have been wounded since the violence began Dec. 9.
But it is also a land of merchants and workers, of people trying to eke out a living in circumstances that even in the best of times are tough and unforgiving.
And these are not the best of times. Ever since trouble first exploded here four weeks ago, the shops have been closed almost continuously and for much of that time, the 50,000 Gazans who travel to jobs in Israel daily have been cut off from what for most of them is their only source of income.
Some Israeli officials contend that these Gazans and their counterparts on the West Bank form something of a silent majority that would simply like tranquility to return.
"The Arab population . . . wants to return to normalcy because it also sees that . . . disturbances, acts of incitement and rock throwing do not lead anywhere," Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir told Israel radio earlier this week.
In fact, many older Palestinians said, their dilemma is more complex than Shamir's characterization. Many said they feel sympathy for the young men battling the Army. Most have had a run-in at one time or another with Israeli soldiers, incidents that can range from a minor humiliation at a military checkpoint to a jail sentence.
Everyone expressed grievances about conditions after 20 years of military occupation and many insisted they have no second thoughts about the work days and the money they have sacrificed.
But some, when interviewed in private away from other Palestinians, expressed reservations. For many, the first few days of last month's strike were voluntary, something they agreed with and got caught up with. But as the strike ground on, some grew tired but said they were compelled to stay away from work by youths with rocks and threats.
There have been days when "going to work has been like going to war," said Bahai Sofiri, a maintenance worker at the Erez Dayan clothing factory in an Israeli-owned industrial zone just inside the Gaza line. Sofiri said he has reported for work as often as he could during this past month.
"From an ideological point, I agree with the youths, but from a practical point there is no alternative" to working, he said. "I have a wife, I have three children. To continue living, I have to work."
For Arab merchants and workers, the war begins early each day. This morning in Palestine Square, the main commercial center of Gaza City, youths stoned workers lining up for the buses and taxis that take them to Israel. Many went home. At Erez Dayan, only 10 of the 60 workers made it.
Things had grown fairly quiet near the end of last week, merchants said, but then on Sunday Israel announced that it had issued expulsion orders to nine activists, four of whom live in the Gaza Strip, and a soldier killed an Arab woman in a Jerusalem suburb. By Sunday night, Gaza City was erupting again.
On Monday the youths turned their attention to the shopkeepers on Omar el Mukhtar, Gaza's main commercial strip.
The merchants close when they are told to, but they remain on the premises behind metal shutters or outside their shops waiting for the soldiers. They do so, they said, because if they do not open up when ordered, the soldiers either crack open their padlocks with crowbars or weld the doors shut.
Today a 10-man patrol of the crack Oivati brigade made its way down Omar el Mukhtar at about 1 p.m. after a police van with a loudspeaker cruised the street ordering everyone to open. Slowly doors were opened a crack at the Maju Hirat Huna and Lateef Ayyad jewelry stores, at the Ibn Sina pharmacy, the Faris Boutique, the Abu Rahma appliance shop and the El Falugy sewing shop. Some merchants objected, saying they feared protesters would break their windows, but the soldiers ignored them.
The Army said it forces the shops open for the welfare of the merchants and the public.
"We know the main reason these shopkeepers are closing is because they are threatened by other people," said a senior Army commander who asked not to be named in an interview before the violence intensified. "And in most cases we learned that what they prefer is for us to push them. It gives them an excuse to open, which is what most of them want to do."
The merchants dismiss such explanations. "We do not want to open but they force us to," said one of the jewelry shop owners. Like most of the other merchants, he refused to give his name for fear of reprisals. "When they leave, I will close again. This is the crazy life we are living."
After the 10-man patrol left Omar el Mukhtar Street this afternoon, it headed down a side street toward a corner where someone had managed to hang a small flag of the outlawed Palestine Liberation Organization from an electricity wire. The soldiers stood for several minutes pondering the limp banner, then ordered two boys to bring a wooden ladder from a nearby mosque.
The ladder was too short to reach the flag, but then the patrol stopped a blue van and ordered one youth to climb atop it. Standing on a small stool on the roof of the van, he swung at the flag with a broom handle. The soldiers laughed as the boy, age 16, swung and missed three times and almost lost his balance. On the fourth swing he succeeded and the flag fell to the road, where the patrol leader picked it up.
But while the patrol was lingering on the side street, the stone throwers returned to Omar el Mukhtar. They pulled shelves and merchandise from one shop into the street, blocked the road and pelted passing cars with rocks. Like turtles receding into their shells, the shopkeepers quickly shuttered their stores again and the streets emptied.
For the workers at the Erez Dayan factory, working in Gaza contains its own special set of contradictions. The company's prime product is military gear produced by Palestinians who said they hold the Army in fear and contempt.
"It's work, it's nothing," said a worker who gave his name as Samer as he sewed Army jackets. "Look, all Palestinians working are helping Israel whether we do it for the Army or for civilians."
Samer said he broke the general strike and came to work today because he had participated in recent demonstrations and wanted to be able to claim the alibi that he was working when the police come.
A worker who said his name is Mohammed said he had returned because, "I had enough. People can't last a month or more without work."