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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 July 2006, 11:06 GMT 12:06 UK
Bitter Gazans await their fate
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

Child waves a Palestinian flag in Gaza
Gaza's problems make it close to ungovernable
Israel has carried out further air strikes on targets in Gaza and is putting the new Hamas government under immense pressure to try to secure the release of an Israeli soldier abducted by Palestinian militants. Our correspondent is watching the drama unfold.

Years ago, when an old Palestinian statesman dropped out of a leadership race a journalist accused him of being scared of losing. He replied that he was not scared of losing - he was scared of winning. What he meant was that anyone who takes on the challenge of running this place is asking for trouble.

After nearly 40 years of Israeli occupation, Palestinian society is filled with a sense of having endured vast injustice. It is mired in despair and badly divided. There are too many guns, too many armed factions - and not nearly enough hope of something better to come.

The best of governments would struggle here. And Hamas came to the task with an attitude towards Israel that guaranteed that it would quickly be engulfed by problems.

Desperate

In the past Hamas suicide bombers have hammered at Israel's cities, taking hundreds of lives. Hamas called the bombs in the cafes and the buses resistance to occupation. But the West called it terrorism.

It plunged the new government into economic and diplomatic isolation. And it will remain an international pariah until Hamas renounces violence and recognises Israel's right to exist.

If Corporal Shalit dies, the assassination of Hamas leaders is a real possibility

The economic embargo is so severe that civil servants have been paid virtually nothing for nearly four months.

Hamas is so desperate that one of its spokesmen was caught trying to smuggle hundreds of thousands of dollars into Gaza in his underclothes.

But you cannot run a government like that, and the economy is starting to seize up.

So things were bad enough even before Hamas landed itself in a whole new crisis - the affair of the missing soldier.

Political jeopardy

Hamas militants were among those who raided an army post on Gaza's border on Sunday. In the dawn light they burst out of a tunnel and surprised a slumbering tank crew. The attackers killed two soldiers and led away 19-year-old Corporal Gilad Shalit.

And when you see pictures of his pale, bespectacled face on television, it is easy to believe that he is as he is described - shy, bright, and with a gift for maths. He is every Israeli's "kid next door".

Corporal Shalit
Corporal Shalit is the typical Israeli "kid next door"

And now they are watching him live their nightmare. He is somewhere in the depths of Gaza, in the hands of their most formidable enemy.

Israel holds Hamas entirely responsible for the soldier's fate. It has rejected any talk of freeing Palestinian prisoners in return for his release.

If Corporal Shalit dies, the assassination of Hamas leaders is a real possibility. Already they have largely disappeared from public view. And Israel has put behind bars the movement's political elite in the West Bank.

The whole Hamas government project is now in real jeopardy.

International concern

And there is no doubt that the soldier is in great danger. A few days ago the body of another Israeli teenager was found - killed in the West Bank by Palestinian militants.

The crisis surrounding Corporal Shalit has caused huge international concern. The French President, Jacques Chirac, the Pope and the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, have all appealed for a peaceful outcome.

But the Abu Auda family is not counting on that. I sat with them in the cool of their terrace overlooking the farmland around the town of Beit Hanoun.

It is hard to overstate their loathing for the Israeli army - it is the machine that has subjected them to decades of military occupation

Just beyond the date palms lay the border - and Israel. And the Abu Audas knew that at any time, Israeli tanks might come pouring through the maize fields - hunting for Corporal Shalit.

They have endured numerous incursions, and they knew well what the next one would be like. Helicopter gunships would clatter overhead, there would be gunfire, and the tanks would shake the earth and fill the night with their fumes and the roar of their engines.

It would be terrifying. But as he sat in a long white gown, looking out at the fields, old Abu Shadi Abu Auda said that he was not going anywhere. This was his home, he said - and he would not be leaving.

And Palestinians like him look on at the international attention being focused on the missing soldier with something close to contempt. They see him as a kind of prisoner-of-war.

Civilians in danger

It is hard to overstate their loathing for the Israeli army. It is the machine that has subjected them to decades of military occupation. Hundreds of Palestinian civilians have been killed - and their deaths often go largely unnoticed.

A few weeks ago the Israeli air force struck at a leading militant on a busy street in Gaza. The blast caught the Amin family as they passed in their car.

A little girl called Mariyah had her spinal cord cut by a bit of shrapnel. She will never move her arms or legs again, she will never even be able to breathe again without the help of a machine, and she is only three years old.

Her mother, her grandmother and her brother all died in the Israeli attack. But the Amin family's tragedy went almost unremarked in the wider world - Jacques Chirac, the Pope and Kofi Annan said nothing.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 30 June, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.




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