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http://www.independent.co.uk/news/World/Middle_East/2001- 01/sharon210101.shtml

Sharon's return puts Wreckage Street in fear

The man likely to be Israel's next leader evokes bad memories for Palestinians

By Phil Reeves, The Independent, 21 January 2001

 

After four months of living under an Israeli blockade that has sealed off their blighted patch of land from the outside world, the old men of the Gaza Strip have even more time than usual to sit and ruminate on their past.

And, as they study from afar the unfolding battle for power in Israel, the nation that still occupies their home, there is one chapter of their dismal history that has begun to gnaw away at them anew.

Thirty years have elapsed since Ariel Sharon, favourite to win Israel's forthcoming election , was the head of the Israel Defence Forces' southern command, charged with the task of "pacifying" the recalcitrant Gaza Strip after the 1967 war.

But the old men still remember it well. Especially the old men on Wreckage Street. Until late 1970, Wreckage, or Had'd, Street wasn't a street, just one of scores of narrow, nameless alleys weaving through Gaza City's Beach Camp, a shantytown cluttered with low, two-roomed houses, built with UN aid for refugees from the 1948 war who then, as now, were waiting for the international community to settle their future.

The street acquired its name after an unusually prolonged visit from Mr Sharon's soldiers. Their orders were to bulldoze hundreds of homes to carve a wide, straight street.

This would allow Israeli troops and their heavy armoured vehicles to move easily through the camp, to exert control and hunt down men from the Palestinian Liberation Army. Mr Sharon, the Likud leader, has two nicknames, the Bulldozer, and Mr Security. He has earned them both.

"They came at night and began marking the houses they wanted to demolish with red paint," said Ibrahim Ghanim, 70, a retired labourer, "In the morning they came back, and ordered everyone to leave. I remember all the soldiers shouting at people, 'Yalla, yalla, yalla, yalla!'

"They threw everyone's belongings into the street. Then Sharon brought in bulldozers and started flattening the street. He did the whole lot, almost in one day. And the soldiers would beat people, can you imagine? Soldiers with guns, beating little kids?"

By the time the Israeli army's work was done, hundreds of homes were destroyed, not only in Wreckage Street but through the camp, as Sharon ploughed out a grid of wide security roads.

Many of the refugees took shelter in schools, or squeezed into the already badly over-crowded homes of relatives. Other families, usually those with a Palestinian political activist, were loaded into trucks and taken to exile in a town in the heart of the Sinai Desert, then controlled by Israel.

And some, like Hesham Ghanim, then 14, were forced to move into a tent in Gaza City, where he remained for two years. With a shudder, he recalls the demolition day in Beach Camp.

"I can remember hearing the crying of people as the troops moved up the road. First it was far away, then it grew closer and closer." He showed us the spot where his home used to be. It is now part of a dusty open thoroughfare.

The devastation of Beach Camp was far from the exception. In August 1971 alone, troops under Mr Sharon's command destroyed some 2,000 homes in the Gaza Strip, uprooting 16,000 people for the second time in their lives.

Hundreds of young Palestinian men were arrested and deported to Jordan and Lebanon. Six hundred relatives of suspected guerrillas were exiled to Sinai. In the second half of 1971, 104 guerrillas were assassinated.

"The policy at that time was not to arrest suspects, but to assassinate them," said Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza City. "Every day one, two, or three bodies would be brought into the morgue. I also remember the shooting at night. The Israelis would start about 9pm, shooting at nothing, just in the air, and go all night almost non-stop. It was terrible."

Years later, when the Palestinians of Gaza heard about the massacre of many hundreds of refugees in Sabra and Shatila by Christian Phalangists in Lebanon in 1982 - an episode for which Mr Sharon, then defence minister, was held partially responsible by an Israeli inquiry - few were surprised.

"We knew what he was like long before that," said Ibrahim Ghanim. Nor were they the only ones. Arabs on the West Bank also knew all about Mr Sharon, well before his reign of terror in Gaza.

In 1953, he was commander of Unit 101, set up by the Israeli armed forces to mount retaliatory raids against Arab guerrillas who made cross-border attacks on Israel. In October of that year, 101 and a company of paratroopers raided Kibya, a village on the West Bank then under Jordanian control.

This was a reprisal, to avenge the killing of a Jewish woman and her two children near Tel Aviv. The raiders party blew up 45 houses, killing 69 residents, half of them women and children.

More than four decades on Ariel Sharon is ahead of the polls by 18 to 20 points. Unless Shimon Peres replaces his opponent, Ehud Barak, the old general, at 72, looks certain to be elected prime minister of Israel in just over a fortnight.

 



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