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Life After Curfew: Joy Riding and Baby-Making

January 7, 1994

GAZA CITY, Occupied Gaza Strip (AP) _ Seven fashionably dressed Palestinian women sit giggling over a seaside dinner when suddenly one notices it’s well past curfew. A chill descends on the group.

They’ve been too engaged in their reunion to notice all the tables around them emptying before the nightly deadline to get off the streets.

″I’m not leaving this place. I’m going to sleep on the table,″ says Maleeha Abu Sitta, 70. ″I’m too scared to go out.″

Gazans consider the 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew imposed six years ago a heavy burden, transforming the daily patterns of their lives. One of the strongest reasons many support the Israel-PLO autonomy accord signed in September is that it’s supposed to put an end to the hated measure.

The army imposed the curfew just after the intefadeh, the Palestinian uprising that began in December 1987, to curb nighttime attacks. Some professionals, such as doctors, can get permits to be out after curfew.

But the average Palestinian is supposed to get home just after nightfall, prompting many to see the curfew as yet another excuse for Israelis to harass them.

″We don’t believe the Israelis are under any threat at night,″ said Ihab Ashkar, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Fatah faction. ″The curfew is just part of Israel’s strategy to oppress us.″

The punishment for breaking the curfew is a fine, equal to a traffic ticket, which is a bit less than a $100. But that can be a lot in Gaza, where the average wage is about $300 per month. Some violators are also detained for 48 hours or longer, depending on their status. A youth active in the intefadeh might be interrogated, for example.

Gazans had hoped that the curfew would be lifted Dec. 13, when the Israelis were supposed to begin withdrawing from the strip under the autonomy accord.

But the delay in negotiations has evaporated those hopes.

After curfew, Gaza has the feel of a town waiting for a bomb to fall. Almost nothing moves.

Stray dogs roam the dark streets, occasionally illuminated by Israeli flares over the beach or the Palestinian refugees camps.

Evening basically starts at 3 p.m. in winter, about two hours before sunset. That’s when weddings, birthday parties, visits and the rare theatrical play usually begin.

The strong influence of Islamic groups means liquor, banned under religious law, is hard to find. Only two restaurants stay open past 8 p.m. One is the U.N.-operated Beach Club; the other As-Salam Restaurant.

Abu Haseira, the Palestinian owner of the As-Salam, plans to surprise Gazans with a Chinese restaurant, the first ethnic one in the city, and belly dancers in his fish restaurant once the curfew is lifted.

Gaza resident Nuha Sourani said that retiring before curfew has become such an ingrained habit in her 7-year-old son Kenaan, that when the family was recently in Cairo, he shouted at passers-by as curfew time approached that they’d better get home.

The curfew has inspired Gazan artists. Fayez Sirsawi, 32, sketched a couple making love on their roof, fenced in by soldiers on the street below.

″The curfew has turned people into baby-making machines,″ he said. ″People have only sex on their minds after curfew.″

A study published by the Gaza Health Service Research Center showed a gradual increase in birth rate from 27,375 in 1988 to 37,041 in 1992. The birth rate for 1992 was 50.4 per 1,000 women, one of the highest in the world.

There is some activity after curfew but it requires extreme caution.

Drivers go slowly, usually at 20 mph, as fast cars make Israeli soldiers nervous. And drivers usually keep the inside light on in their cars.

″Going out after curfew can be a matter of life and death,″ says Mrs. Abu Sitta after fleeing from the fish dinner, her hands tightly clutched over her handbag as her eyes dart out the car window for signs of trouble.

Her 44-year-old daughter, Adala Abu Medein, on the other hand, was having the time of her life cruising the streets and honking her horn in her rare moment of curfew-busting.

″I’m intoxicated just from driving after curfew,″ she said. ″I feel like a tourist exploring a new city. Tonight, I’m the queen of Gaza streets.″