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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 April, 2004, 15:51 GMT 16:51 UK
Gaza expects little from pullout
By Wyre Davies
BBC, Gaza

Palestinian female workers sit behind razor wire on the road outside an Israeli industrial zone in the northern Gaza Strip
Palestinians doubt that Sharon's plan will mean greater freedom
It is not without some justification they call Gaza the "world's biggest prison" - 1.3 million people crammed into an area only 360 km square.

Since the beginning of the second Intifada, or popular uprising, in September 2000, it has been virtually impossible for many Gazans to travel outside the occupied territory because of strict Israeli frontier controls.

Even moving within Gaza, from north to south, is a nightmare because of military checkpoints around Israeli settlements like Netzarim and the Gush Katif bloc.

But will all this change under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement plan" for Gaza? It appears not.

While virtually all Palestinians welcome Mr Sharon's plan to withdraw troops and some 7,000 settlers from Gaza, they remain deeply suspicious of his motives and doubt if there will be any greater freedoms arising from the initiative.

Hindering development

Once the settlers have gone it will of course be easier for students to travel from Khan Younis and Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip to universities and colleges in Gaza City, and for families within the territory to visit each other.

Mohammad al-Qord

But many fear that is as far is it will go.

Mohammad al-Qord does not anticipate that travelling outside Gaza for work or pleasure will be any easier.

"It will become even more of a prison where Sharon will be able to dump Palestinians," says the 20-year-old student.

Indeed, Israel is threatening to tighten its stranglehold around the Gaza Strip.

Mr Sharon says he will also keep control over Gaza's southern border with Egypt and will deny the Gazans the right to rebuild their airport and develop a commercial port.

Palestinian leaders have already warned that such moves will seriously inhibit the ability for social and economic development in Gaza, where male unemployment runs at about 60% and the United Nations says 70% of people live in poverty.

Frustrated dreams

As for the wider prospects for peace, few Palestinians in Gaza believe that Mr Sharon's plan will have any short- or long-term benefits.

The Israeli prime minister says it is based purely on security concerns, to lessen Israel's exposure to militant attacks and improve life in the Palestinian territories.

But Palestinian leaders have criticised him for not involving them in the discussions over Gaza and the West Bank.

Ahmed Hejazzi
Ahmed Hejazzi: The plan is only good for Israel
They say that Israel should adhere to the internationally-sponsored "roadmap" - a staged process to peace and the withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories - leading to a negotiated two-state settlement.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Mr Sharon was closing the door on the peace process. The intention to keep thousands of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank was a recipe for disaster, he said.

Ahmed Hejazzi, another Gaza student, said the "disengagement plan" was, "...only good news for Israel".

"Although there may be more freedom for us inside the Gaza Strip, by keeping so many illegal settlements in the West Bank, Sharon is still denying us Palestinians basic rights."

Palestinians have urged President Bush to push the Israeli prime minister back to the roadmap.

But many here are worried that a tight Israeli grip around Gaza and the continued presence of large settlements in the heart of the West Bank will continue to frustrate their dreams of freedom and a viable Palestinian state.

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