When the Cage Bursts

The Gaza Strip is not under Israeli control; it is under Israeli responsibility. Because when a million and a half people are enclosed in layers of barbed wire, trenches and patrols, the PA can function as no more than a prison guard.

The Gaza Strip is not under Israeli control; it is under Israeli responsibility. Because when a million and a half people are enclosed in layers of barbed wire, illumination devices, trenches and patrols, the Palestinian Authority can function as no more than a guard in a prison.

The PA received the manual on running the Gaza Strip from Israel. However, it is unable to stop bulldozers from demolishing a row of houses 50 meters wide, it is not able to appeal sentences that Israel imposes on its citizens, its soldiers are barely able to organize the cars on the streets as though they were part of an endless merry-go-round, nor do they have the authority to decide when Palestinian vehicles are permitted to cross the Katif Junction.

Above the heads of the inmates of this vast prison are two systems of guards. There is the Palestinian system, which is incapable even of seeing to basic needs such as work or welfare services; and there is the Israeli system, which decides when the residents of this non-state will wake up and when and where they will go to sleep. Will they get up in the morning and discover that their homes have been destroyed? Will a missile knock out the electric power? Or will an avenging bulldozer turn the only breathing space - the airport - into a plowed field?

On any given day during normal working hours, a million and a half people are sitting in their homes and working up a rage. The shop owners among them are the lucky ones, because they have someplace to go in order to relieve their boredom, provided they have the wherewithal with which to pay the rent of the shop. Others await funerals, so they can get out into the air and work off a little steam: rifles will be fired into the air, there will be some shouting, maybe an Israeli flag will be burned; maybe they would like to see a Palestinian flag burned, too, if this is all it's capable of.

The people on Omar al-Mukhtar Street, say, or on Thalatin Street, have no idea what a political horizon is. They don't know what a horizon is. The horizon of the two children who pressed up against the car window was as expansive as the package of gum they tried to sell the foreign visitors, or maybe the size of the piece of the pita they bit off. For the rich the horizon lies in England or America, which is where they have gone or will send their children.

Neither killing nor house demolitions frighten people here. "In prison it's not the inmates who are afraid and in the cemeteries the dead have no more fear in their heart," says a resident of Gaza. "Let the jailers be afraid."

On these streets, in which the rainwater has mixed with the sewage to form a malodorous ooze, there is no danger of a powder keg blowing up. It has already exploded, spraying everything in the area: the children going to school even though absolutely nothing awaits them at the end of the track; the young people who have finished school and plunged from the heights of the final grade to the muddy street corners; the fathers who are being forced to leap over an entire generation of realizing dreams for their children; and the uniformed, Kalashnikov-carrying guards who no longer guard anything and only hope they will not wake up one morning and find themselves trampled under the feet of the residents. Suicide, it seems, is not only an operation against the enemy; it is an honorable way to put an end to the dying.

If there is one thing that utterly dumbfounds the visitor to this safari park called the Gaza Strip, it is the ability of the Palestinian leadership to still hold onto the tattered reins of power and prevent them from disintegrating completely. In other societies, those that are less steeled than the Palestinian community, the leadership would have fallen apart long ago, and in its place tribal leaders or chiefs of gangs would be running things. True, the independence of Islamic Jihad and the rebellious Hamas movement pose a potential threat, but the basic confidence in Yasser Arafat and in the Palestinian Authority has not collapsed.

Israel can shout that the PA is infested with terrorism, but that represents the less cogent danger. Because if a situation arises in which the PA no longer exists, Israel is going to have to deal with each and every resident of the Gaza Strip. The cage will no longer be able to contain them.