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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 February, 2005, 12:26 GMT
Middle East hopes for a new era

By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

In the days ahead, the world will be watching events in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh on the Gulf of Aqaba. The newly elected Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas will meet the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and there now seems to be the possibility that four years of bloodshed may be drawing to a close.

Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon
Palestinian and Israeli leaders have spoken of a historic opportunity

The Gaza Strip is famously one of the most crowded places on earth.

Nearly 1.5 million Palestinians are packed onto this sliver of coastline, and almost every inch of it has been built on. Only at Gaza's northern tip do you get any sense of there still being a little space.

On the edge of the village of Beit Lahiya people like the Ghaabin family even have something approaching a rural lifestyle.

Their farmhouse is surrounded by fields of strawberries that are ripening now in the winter sunshine.

By Gaza's clamouring, claustrophobic standards, the farm is a rather tranquil place, but one morning last month it was the scene of a moment of terrible violence.

What happened under a dead tree on the edge of the orchard will mark the Ghaabin family forever, but it also went to the heart of the great debate in Palestinian society.

How should Israel be confronted? Should it be with violence, or is it time to talk?

Shattered lives

On that January morning, Palestinian militants slipped into the strawberry fields of Beit Lahiya armed with a mortar.

They fired it into a nearby Israeli settlement, home to nearly 300 families, and one man working in the area was injured.

Palestinian forces begin their redeployment in Gaza
Palestinian forces have been redeploying in Gaza

The Israeli army protects the settlers, and a tank opened fire. The army says that it aimed at the militants, but the shell exploded under the dead tree where a group of children and teenagers had gathered to watch the drama.

One of the Ghaabin family, Faris, told me how he ran towards the sound of screaming.

What he found on the edge of the orchard will live with him all his days.

There were six dead. The oldest was 17 and the youngest 11.

Faris said, "I found my brothers and cousins in pieces everywhere."

Just the night before, the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, had condemned the attacks by the militants.

He had said they achieved nothing, but led to suffering for ordinary Palestinians when the Israelis hit back.

What had happened on the Ghaabin family farm seemed to be a case in point.

Time for change

Mr Abbas believes that the era of the suicide bombings did great damage to the Palestinian cause.

The attacks by groups like Hamas, which says it seeks Israel's destruction, led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians in the buses and cafes of Israel and the outside world was appalled.

The men in masks took issue with Mr Abbas's argument that their mortar strikes were achieving nothing
Mr Abbas wants the Palestinians to put all violence behind them now. He says that it is time to try to end decades of Israeli occupation through negotiation.

He believes that if he can march his people back to the moral high ground, they can wage an argument from it that will, eventually, deliver them a nation of their own.

I tracked down the militants who had fired the mortar from the strawberry fields.

There were a series of phone calls and then a taxi ride that took us twisting deep into the alleyways of Gaza City.

Five members of a group called the Popular Resistance Committees, heavily armed and wearing masks, had gathered in a safe house to make their case.

Under a black banner inscribed with a verse from the Koran, they said that of course they regretted children's deaths. But they had been martyrs, the spokesman said, in a national liberation struggle.

And the men in masks took issue with Mr Abbas's argument that their mortar strikes were achieving nothing.

The Israelis planned to pull out of Gaza this summer, and the militants say it is their attacks that are driving the settlers out.

Hopes for progress
Perhaps that 'relative calm' can be turned into something more substantial, a full blown Palestinian-Israeli ceasefire

But it seems that Mr Abbas has managed to persuade the militants that it is time to lay down their weapons.

In his first days in power last month, Mr Abbas came here to Gaza and talked alone late into the night with the Hamas leaders.

They agreed that there would be a period a calm. What Hamas called a time to test the Israelis, to see if the army might step back too.

And there has been a significant reduction in the level of violence. Gaza has gone through two weeks of rare, relative calm.

The focus in the days ahead will be on Mr Abbas's summit in Sinai with the Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon.

Perhaps that "relative calm" can be turned into something more substantial, a full blown Palestinian-Israeli ceasefire.

If that were to hold, then maybe the four-year-old Palestinian uprising, the intifada, would be over.

And maybe the kind of tragedy that engulfed the Ghaabin family will become a thing of the past in Gaza, and a real, lasting calm will settle again in the strawberry fields of Beit Lahiya.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 5 February, 2005, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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