'We've Been Kidnapped'

It began in a concrete-block house in a sandy alley in Rafah, a hardscrabble Palestinian town at the southern edge of the Gaza Strip. Photographer Gary Knight and I had driven there last Tuesday morning to report on a worsening guerrilla war--a conflict pitting lightly armed Palestinian insurgents against Israeli troops backed by tanks and bulldozers. Squeezed into a tiny, airless room, sitting across from four masked men carrying Kalashnikov rifles, we had come to interview and photograph the self-described commander of a militant group called the Fatah Hawks. Outside, there was a sudden burst of tank fire, followed by the steady rat-a-tat of semiautomatic weapons. "Don't worry," said the commander, studying us from behind a checkered kaffiyeh that concealed everything but his dark eyes. "It's three or four houses away." As further reassurance, he had his men serve us a meal of hummus, salad and lamb kebab. The commander told us he had a message for "Bush and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair" that he promised to deliver to us at the end of the interview. Suddenly, an hour into the discussion, our translator, Ali, was summoned outside for a talk with the commander. When he returned moments later, he was ashen-faced. "There is a bad situation," Ali said. "We've been kidnapped."

As it turned out, we were the message. Ali handed us a typed press release in Arabic, apparently prepared by our abductors well ahead of time, that explained we were being detained to protest U.S. and British government support for Israel. "We're going to be held until 6 o'clock," Ali said. "It's just a symbolic kidnapping." Assuaged by that promise, we sat quietly, dozing off in the hot afternoon, awakening occasionally to face the surreal sight of our armed guards staring at us through their black ski masks and kaffiyehs. But as the hours wore on we grew more nervous--especially after we learned that the terms had changed. Now, the commander told Ali, we would be held until "the Western media took notice." Sealed inside our tiny room, we wondered how effective the Fatah Hawks would be in getting their message out. In the end our detention lasted only four hours. There were handshakes and apologies after we were permitted to call our editors and several news services ran stories about the incident. The kidnapping had indeed been symbolic. But with its eerie echoes of Western hostage-taking in neighboring Lebanon during the civil war, it mainly symbolized a new stage in the ever-worsening conflict. True, the Gaza Strip is hardly wartime Beirut, where journalist Terry Anderson and other hostages disappeared for years on end. But anarchy is spreading on the streets of Gaza, where the Palestinian Authority is losing popular support to radical groups. Moreover, Palestinian militants have increasingly adopted the tactics employed by Hizbullah guerrillas during the 18-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon: suicide bombings, roadside booby traps, ambushes and mortar attacks. And for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who as Defense minister orchestrated the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the uprising has created a quagmire at least as deep and intractable. A flow of weapons smuggled in through tunnels burrowed beneath the Egyptian border is fueling the conflict, which is being brought with alarming frequency to the heart of Israel: on Friday night a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance to a popular nightclub on Tel Aviv's beachfront, killing at least 18 people and injuring about 90. "The fighters aren't as sophisticated as Hizbullah, but they're getting better," says Lt. Leor Bar-On, who has been based in Gaza through the intifada. "It's no longer a popular uprising. It's becoming a full-scale guerrilla war."

Just who is orchestrating this Lebanonized war is difficult to determine. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, fearing a major Israeli retaliation after the Tel Aviv bombing, made his most conciliatory remarks in months over the weekend: he condemned the suicide attack and called for a ceasefire. But most Israelis believe he is quietly encouraging such bombings, or at least is powerless to stop them. Back in Gaza the night after our detention, we were summoned for an audience with Mohammed Dahlan, the chief of Preventive Security and a close aide to Arafat, in a luxurious apartment near the sea. Saying he was embarrassed by our kidnapping, Dahlan insisted that the men who abducted us were probably a tiny cell of youths who wanted to humiliate the Palestinian Authority. Dahlan denied that his own men were shooting Israelis. At the same time, the security chief implied that he wouldn't--or couldn't--interfere with the popular uprising. "When the Israelis shell and attack, we understand the people's reaction," he said. "It's not our responsibility to stop it."

There is much that Dahlan can't stop. In the streets of Khan Yunis, Rafah and other towns, Hamas and Islamic Al Jihad are gaining increasing support--much as Hizbullah did in the poor Shiite suburbs of West Beirut. Here whole neighborhoods have been "shaved" by Israeli tanks and bulldozers seeking to create open fields of fire. These desperate warrens have become breeding grounds for young, frustrated radicals eager to martyr themselves in revenge. They include men like Abdel Moti Assar, 22, and Ismail Ashur, 21, Hamas suicide bombers from Khan Yunis who blew themselves up last Tuesday morning at a military checkpost guarding the Gush Katif settlement in Gaza, injuring two soldiers. At their funeral the next day, thousands of youths surged through the streets behind their mutilated corpses, firing pistols and Kalashnikovs. "We are all Hamas," said one 10-year-old proudly waving a green Hamas flag.

Just as in Lebanon, the guerrilla attacks have created hellish consequences for the civilian population. In better times Palestinians and Jews shared the sole highway that runs across Gaza, but after the violence began, the Israeli military constructed a concrete barrier down the center that keeps the settlers and Palestinians apart. The settlers pass without trouble; the Palestinians remain at the soldiers' mercy. Shielded from the hostile population inside tanks and concrete bunkers, the jittery troops conduct random checks and--after suicide attacks--seal the highway for hours at a time. As we journeyed back to Gaza from captivity, the Gush Katif checkpoint was a sweltering hell of backed-up cars and cursing motorists who'd been stuck on the highway for as long as five hours. Busloads of settlers, escorted by military jeeps, raced from the settlement down their side of their highway--a reminder of the privileged status of the hated occupiers. "This is our wretched life," lamented Khaled Mohamed, a trader who had spent nine hours that day shuttling between Gaza City and Khan Yunis. "We just pray that they can find a compromise, because we can't tolerate this."

The proximity between settlers and Palestinians creates surreal scenes of confrontation. School headmaster Khalil Bashir, 50, his wife and five children live in a three-story house just meters from the edge of a Jewish settlement called Kfar Darom. When the intifada began, Israeli troops sealed off Kfar Darom with thick coils of barbed wire and built an observation tower adjacent to the Bashirs' property. They chopped down the family's olive trees and razed their greenhouses to clear an open area as protection against snipers. They stationed troops on Bashir's roof and, as if in mockery of the peace process, designated his top two floors as "Area C"--an Israeli-occupied zone that the family cannot enter. But Bashir's "Area A," the Palestinian-controlled ground floor, is hardly a safe haven. In April, reflecting Sharon's new "hit and run" tactics of invading, then swiftly retreating from, Palestinian territory, soldiers fired a burst of bullets into Bashir's bedroom, missing him by inches.

Across the fence, the Jewish settlers face their own risks. Corralled inside isolated communities patrolled by Israeli tanks, the 5,000 Jews in Gaza are effectively prisoners. Traveling outside their settlements means moving in convoys across miles of hostile territory, much as 19th-century wagon trains traversed the American frontier. The sandy wasteland is filled with buried roadside bombs; Palestinian snipers lay ambushes from half-finished buildings that offer a perfect vantage point over the highway. Some nights, guerrillas crawl through the sand to within a few meters of the Israeli base protecting the Gush Katif settlement before opening fire--a tactic borrowed from Hizbullah. Minutes after our arrival last week, guerrillas attacked with mortars and light weapons from four positions. Dozens of settlers waited patiently for the fire fight to finish, then climbed into their cars and sport utility vehicles and set off down through the sandy wasteland to Gush Katif.

The violence has only deepened the settlers' resolve to stay. And today they have broad public support, in contrast to a year ago when most settlers were seen as a radical minority in Israel. In Morag, a seaside division of Gush Katif, two women were injured by sniper fire last fall, and mortar shells rain down periodically. But nobody has left--and seven families have moved in since the fighting began. A tough-looking war veteran wearing wraparound sunglasses and a knit yarmulke, Nisim Baracha, 38, says he and his family had become reconciled to leaving Gaza as part of a final peace settlement with the Palestinians, even though he believes that Jews have Biblical roots in the land.

But the intifada convinced him, as it has many Israelis, that Arafat and his followers have no interest in peaceful coexistence. "The Arabs hate us," Baracha says. "I don't believe that settlements like Gush Katif are their last target. Now I think it's just another point along the road to Tel Aviv and Haifa. I'm going to stay and fight." The Palestinians aren't going anywhere, either--and, as our experience made clear last week, their rage may be taking the intifada into frightening new directions. Lebanon, and its depressing ghosts, may be only a starting point.