The fence between Egypt and the Gaza Strip had been torn aside by hundreds of angry demonstrators by the time Zahir, a Palestinian policeman, got his orders on Thursday to try to push all the Palestinian civilians away from the border.
He said he had been shoving through the crowd of hundreds of men, women, and children for about 15 minutes when bullets from a nearby Israeli watchtower whizzed into the crowd, injuring two Palestinian men. At that point, an elderly woman in a white head scarf grabbed his arm and asked why he was not fighting when civilians like herself were willing to die for the cause.
At that point, he stood behind a wall and started firing toward the watchtower.
“I never imagined in my life that I would get into a situation in Gaza where I would be firing at Israelis,” said the 32-year-old policeman, who did not want his full name published out of fear that he would face disciplinary sanction for opening fire. He said he had spent the morning trying to find 20 bullets on the black market to replace the clip he had expended against the watchtower.
“I had always been able to maintain a barrier between my feelings as an ordinary citizen against the peace process, which has brought us nothing, and my military orders to preserve it,” said Zahir, one of about 5,000 Palestinian fighters who returned from exile in May 1994 to form the foundation of a police force that has since grown to 40,000.
“But how am I supposed to follow orders when I see my cousin, my brother, or my neighbor being injured?” he continued. “At that moment, the contradiction became too strong. My emotional reaction to take my gun and respond overcame my military reaction.”
Palestinian police commanders, with their various security forces on almost a war footing against the Israeli military, are calling the events of the last week an aberration, and by Saturday the police were trying to prevent further clashes.
Interviews with the policemen who were involved suggest that the outburst of violence sprang from accumulating frustrations over the last two years and the awkward position the policemen face in having to work to protect a peace agreement that is the source of increasingly bitter feelings in the neighborhoods where they live. Police commanders also point out that the undisciplined, uneducated generation that spent its formative years lobbing stones at Israeli soldiers is a difficult one to remake into a conventional police force.
“We didn’t come back to fight Israel; we came back to live in our own land and to solve our problems with Israel,” said Col. Abu Salah, the 60-year-old officer in charge of training Force 17, the security service that protects Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. “But when my men see a friend killed or injured by Israeli bullets, what do you want them to do? Even if I ordered them to stop, they would probably keep shooting until they ran out of ammunition.”
Huge crowds turned out two years ago to cheer wildly when the Palestinian military units crossed the border into Gaza, arriving from camps in Algeria, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Sudan. As the first symbol of what the Palestinians thought was going to be their state, they received a reception that was even more enthusiastic than the one that greeted Arafat when he arrived some months later.
In the years since, that enthusiasm had cooled markedly. The police, given minimum training and basically viewed as an employment agency for former militants, were beginning to be seen by the Palestinian public as just another form of the Israeli occupation they had endured for 27 years, and they wanted none of it.