KHAN YUNIS, JAN. 10 -- The Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip has long been a zone of human misery and hopelessness. Now it is also a chaotic combat zone, where 29 Arabs have died violently, including two today.
Khan Yunis, Gaza's third largest city, today looked like a miniature Beirut. Every shop was shuttered, every street littered with debris, rocks, makeshift barricades and burning tires. There were no cars and few pedestrians. Most residents stayed inside or huddled in their doorways.
The streets belonged to the shabab -- street Arabic for "the guys" -- the young warriors, ranging in age from perhaps 18 all the way down to 6, who wielded rocks and bottles at every corner. It was they who stalked the urban wasteland, deciding who was friend and who was foe, who could pass unharmed and who must turn back or else brave their stones.
The Israeli soldiers who ostensibly govern this territory were mostly nowhere to be seen. Every 30 minutes or so, two armored personnel carriers rumbled down Gamal Abdel Nasser Street and the helmeted spotters on board peered down the side streets and alleyways for trouble. The shebab would melt into the alleys and backyards, wait for the carriers to lumber off, then return.
It was a scene repeated in at least eight different towns and refugee camps up and down the 200-square-mile strip. The Army ruled the main north-south highway and rings of soldiers backed by armored vehicles and water cannons protected military installations in the major cities. Soldiers declared most of the areas "closed military zones" and ordered out journalists. But except for occasional forays, the Army left the streets and the alleys to the youths.
There was shooting in a a number of clashes in various communities near the main highway, and the Army reported tonight that one Palestinian was killed when troops opened fire on a group of stone throwers in the Sajaiya quarter of Gaza City. The Army said several other Arabs were wounded today but said it was still compiling the figures.
Officials with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which oversees the refugee camps, said they had reports of at least two dozen wounded by gunshots and rubber bullets in Gaza City, the southern city of Rafah and the Mughazi refugee camp. A half dozen U.N. ambulances, pressed into service by the Army, roamed the main highway ferrying injured Palestinians to local hospitals and clinics.
The Army also confirmed that a 60-year-old Arab man had died from gunshot wounds he suffered three weeks ago while allegedly attempting to stab a soldier in Rafah. Today's two reported deaths brought to at least 29 the number of Palestinians killed by the Army since the violence began in Gaza and the occupied West Bank nearly five weeks ago.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who toured the territory by helicopter, told reporters afterward, "I hope that the people of the Gaza Strip will realize that the longer the disturbances will be continued, the greater will be their suffering. This has to be understood by all of them."
Rabin conceded that Israel's security forces had underestimated the intensity and duration of the unrest and said he was determined to restore order. "But it's not going to be achieved by one or two days," he said. "It requires patience, determination and the use of force within the limits of the law."
There were scattered incidents of rioting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, in the Balata and Amari refugee camps and in Arab East Jerusalem. A commercial strike closed shops in Ramallah and East Jerusalem.
But no place in the West Bank had the bleak look and the acrid smell of the streets of Gaza. At least four people have died here in the past four days and each day, residents say, the region has grown progressively out of control. Tonight the Army reported that each of the area's eight refugee camps was under some form of curfew.
Even villages like Beni Suheila near Khan Yunis, which had managed to remain tranquil for the first four weeks of the unrest, are now caught up in the spiral. Hundreds of residents there marched toward Khan Yunis yesterday after leaflets from Islamic Jihad, the underground Islamic fundamentalist movement, urged them to demonstrate. Soldiers blocked them as they neared the main highway, rocks were thrown and one man was shot dead.
After that, residents say, the Army retaliated. Soldiers entered the village late in the afternoon, firing tear gas into houses, smashing windows and assaulting people at random, according to witnesses. They returned after midnight, rounding up at least a dozen residents and took them to Khan Yunis where they were held overnight and released.
One of those arrested was Mohammed Abu Hiya, 30, a vegetable trader, who showed reporters deep cuts, scrapes and bruises over his back and shoulders that he said were inflicted by soldiers with clubs.
It was not easy getting into Beni Suheila this morning. Youths armed with stones blocked the road but allowed three western journalists -- correspondents from Reuter, Le Monde and The Washington Post -- to enter on foot.
Getting out was even harder. A soldier brandishing a Galil automatic rifle demanded to know what we were doing in the village and ordered us to leave. Asked for his authorization, an officer pulled out a white sheet of paper declaring in Hebrew that another area had been a closed military zone up until Dec. 28. "If you do not leave right now, I will arrest you. Go home and write about it."
Asked about the incident later, an Army spokesman claimed Gaza was open to press coverage but said officers can order journalists out of any area at any time without a written order. He said soldiers looked at the press as inciting the rioters. "All the soldiers hate the press," he said.
As we left Beni Suheila, two armored personnel carriers and a water cannon pulled up. We saw soldiers taunting the stone throwers to cross an invisible line by coming out farther toward the main road.
Throughout the strip, the pattern was similar. At night, when the youths tired of the game, soldiers headed into the areas, rounding up suspected ringleaders or their relatives or sometimes randomly snatching males over 15.
In the Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, a reliable witness said he saw soldiers last night take nearly 200 males to a nearby gas station where they spent the night standing in the cold. They were released in the morning, he said. U.N. relief workers have reported similar roundups in recent days in Rafah and Khan Yunis.
An Army spokesman, asked about the reports of roundups and assaults, replied, "I can't check out every incident but I would not deny them. It's a very difficult situation in Gaza right now and these things can happen."
In Khan Yunis, residents pointed to smashed windows in houses and cars that they said had been vandalized by soldiers yesterday. They also escorted journalists to the home of Shukria Hafez Faris, a pregnant woman of 35 who died last night in a local hospital after a still-birth. Residents said she had died of suffocation from the new and stronger variety of Israeli tear gas being used in the area. The Army dismissed the report as "totally unfounded," Reuter reported.