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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 August 2005, 00:35 GMT 01:35 UK
Anxious Gaza awaits next steps

By Paul Adams
Defence Correspondent, BBC News

It all makes for a moving spectacle, but what does Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip really mean?

Woman and child in Gush Katif settlement
Scenes of settlers entreating soldiers have unsettled Israelis

There is no doubt that the scenes being played out on TV make Israelis of all political and religious complexions feel deeply uneasy.

Even those who have long regarded Israel's attempt to colonise the Gaza Strip as absurd will feel intense anxiety at the sight of Jew pitted against Jew.

But across a few walls and rolls of barbed wire, 1.5 million Palestinians will be looking on with a different mix of emotions.

Economic freedom

For Palestinian refugees - half-a-million of whom live in eight crowded camps in the Gaza Strip - there will be relief that the settlers, the troops, the checkpoints and the watchtowers are finally going.

There will be little sympathy for the plight of 8,000 Israeli settlers who moved to the Gaza Strip by choice from the Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes in what is now Israel, in 1948.

Talk of generous compensation packages will stir the frustrations of people who, almost 60 years on, have nothing but fading property deeds and the keys to homes they will never see again.

They will want to know what difference the withdrawal will make to their lives.

Israel's withdrawal will free up at least 20% of the area of the Gaza Strip, but unless the Palestinians can exert a degree of economic freedom, this could prove academic.

Impossible situation

Israel says talks on opening a sea port, links between the Gaza Strip and West Bank and other measures can start only when the Palestinian Authority has dismantled militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Israel has yet to indicate whether it will ever allow Gaza's airport to reopen.

Mr Sharon has also spoken of reaching a situation by 2008 where Palestinians are no longer allowed to work in Israel.

Hamas rally in Gaza
Many Palestinians credit Hamas for forcing Israel out of Gaza

If implemented, such a plan would prove catastrophic for the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas finds himself in an impossible situation.

With Hamas riding a wave of popular support, he knows that to do Israel's bidding could easily trigger widespread civil strife among his own people.

Ask almost any Palestinian why they think Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered the settlers out of the Gaza Strip and he or she will answer that it is because the gunmen of Hamas have forced his hand.

The organisation has also become an important political player, expected to score highly whenever the Palestinian leadership plucks up enough courage to call overdue elections.

'Formaldehyde'

Removing Hamas from the Palestinian political landscape is simply not an option for Mr Abbas.

Palestinians in Gaza City
Palestinians want to know if the pullout will lead to statehood

Which means it is hard to see how further progress can be made or how Mr Abbas can gain any badly needed political capital out of what is happening on the ground.

And there are wider concerns, too.

What is Ariel Sharon's broader strategy in ordering this unilateral pullout?

Is the disengagement, as one of his closest advisors was last year quoted as saying, the "formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians"?

General anxiety

Two thousand housing units will soon be demolished in the Gaza settlements, but in the West Bank, Mr Sharon's government is planning to build another 6,000 units, further cementing Israel's grip on the bit of the occupied territories that really matters.

In conjunction with Israel's "security barrier", which points to the eventual annexation of some 10% of the West Bank and threatens to cut off tens of thousands of Palestinian Jerusalemites from their own city, Mr Sharon's settlement policies suggest that he has already decided what Israel's future borders will be.

This triggers anxiety all round.

The settlers suspect that other West Bank communities will eventually be sacrificed, while the Palestinians fear that they will be offered an unviable "state" made up of cantons with little or no territorial continuity and doomed to collapse.




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