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Last Updated: Monday, 12 September 2005, 12:07 GMT 13:07 UK
After Israeli disengagement

By Martin Asser
BBC News, Jerusalem

Palestinian militant looks down over former settlement of Neve Dekalim
Palestinian militants are claiming it as their victory over Israel
What will happen now that Israel has evacuated the settlements and army posts in Gaza as well as four enclaves in the West Bank? Peace in our time or a new era of conflict? And what will happen in the Palestinian land Israel is leaving behind?

This is not the first time Israel has evacuated settlements on territory captured in 1967 - it demolished settlements and ceded territory in Sinai as part of the peace treaty with Egypt a quarter of a century ago.

But this is the first time it has done so unilaterally, without the guarantees provided by signed agreements and international backers, and therein lie some of the dangers of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's so-called Disengagement Plan.

There has been a degree of co-ordination with the Palestinian Authority in the latter stages of the build-up and US mediation, but many crucial questions remain unresolved.

SECURITY

Israel has vowed a zero tolerance approach to any Palestinian militant activity from inside the Gaza Strip after its pullout.

Militant organisations are currently maintaining an informal ceasefire, although they attack Israeli targets in what they describe as acts of retaliation.

But the most powerful group, Hamas, has not given up objective of using armed struggle to restore Palestine and remove Israel from the map.

With Israel's forces back on the pre-1967 Green Line, the militants' capability in Gaza will be limited to rocket and mortar attacks at nearby towns and bases.

But Hamas may prefer to consolidate its political position in Gaza - it already claims the withdrawal as its victory - and transfer its military focus to the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Sharon says future negotiations with the PA depend on its disarming Hamas and other militant organisations. That is unlikely, however, as the Authority has neither the strength nor the legitimacy in popular Palestinian eyes to do that.

Israel, meanwhile, will stay in control of Gaza's borders - with itself and with Egypt - and says a loosening of that grip will depend on whether the PA is doing enough to prevent arms smuggling to the militants.

There is an agreement for the deployment of 750 Egyptian troops to guard along the Philadelphi route, amending the Israel-Egypt peace treaty which dimilitarised the Sinai peninsula.

But if Israel keeps control of the Philadelphi route - turning Gaza into a "big prison" in the words of Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahhar - Hamas is threatening to resume attacks.

POLITICAL FUTURE

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has got just a few months to prove his vision of peace - ending armed struggle, bringing Israel to the negotiating table and moving towards a Palestinian state in all the 1967 land.

Settlers' tents in Tel Aviv
Settlers have had to swap Gaza homes for tents, in some cases
Legislative elections are set for 25 January 2006, and Hamas is gearing up for a strong showing. So Mr Abbas, as he is known, must win swift political gains with Israel to avoid becoming a lame duck.

Israeli-Palestinian contacts, mediated by the international envoy James Wolfensohn, have yielded some advances - on paper.

These include the prospect of greater freedom of movement for Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank, building a sea port in Gaza (using rubble from the settlers' homes) and allowing Palestinian produce into Israel.

But seeing is believing when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And Ariel Sharon will have another priority after the withdrawal - fighting off the challenge of Binyamin Netanyahu for control of the Likud party or forming a new centre bloc to fight elections next year.

Then there is the other plank of his unilateral disengagement policy - consolidation of settlement blocs in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and expediting construction of the separation barrier.

Israel says the barrier is a temporary security measure, but to most analysts it looks like the drawing of Israel's border to annex more Palestinian land and shore up a Jewish majority in the Israeli state.

Such a move could put the possibility of a return to peace talks on hold for a long time to come.

LAND LEFT BEHIND

When the settlers were removed from Gaza, the Israeli army demolished their mainly suburban-style homes while Palestinian and Egyptian contractors have been giving the job of clearing up the rubble.

The demolitions were at the request of the Palestinian Authority, which needs multi-storey buildings to deal with densely populated Gaza's housing crisis.

Heavily-fortified army posts that protected settlements, controlled Palestinians' freedom of movement and segmented their territory have also been dismantled and removed.

Palestinians confronting Israeli troops on Gaza border
Palestinians are worried Israel will keep Gaza as a big prison
The army completed the task on 12 September, well before an October deadline because their continued presence was considered likely to provoke more violence.

Israel left about 20 deconsecrated synagogues intact, against Palestinian objections that they could not be protected, after rabbis said removing them would be forbidden.

The withdrawal means Palestinians are able to use the whole of the Gaza Strip - less than 400 sq km - for the first time in decades.

The Palestinian Authority says about 5% of settlement land was taken from private owners and will be returned to them. The remaining state land will be developed for housing, industry and agriculture with a massive injection of international aid.

A 10-person committee - including members of the main Palestinian factions like Fatah and Hamas as well as independent politicians - has been set up to prevent graft and misuse.

THE SETTLERS

The Israeli government is keen to see all the settlers re-housed in new communities, to mitigate some of the suffering and dislocation of their forced evacuation.

Some will be housed near the Gaza Strip or elsewhere on the Mediterranean coast, and others will go to the occupied West Bank.

The government is providing compensation and assistance to start their new lives in a financial package costing about $0.5bn. It has asked the US to help pay this as well as other pullout expenses.

Although hundreds of families will have broken the law by not leaving by the 17 August deadline, the authorities are not saying how they will be dealt with.

There seems little point in criminalising part of an important Israeli constituency while the government is hoping to heal wounds as quickly as possible. It may deal more harshly with the radical protesters who came from outside.

Forty-eight graves in Neve Dekalim settlement - a source of much emotive debate in Israel - have been relocated outside the Strip.




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