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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 September 2005, 09:13 GMT 10:13 UK
All eyes on Gaza's fragile future
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

A Palestinian policeman on guard by an Israeli tank, near Khan Younis in Gaza
The world is watching to see what happens after Israel's tanks leave
Israel has abandoned its settlements in the Gaza Strip and the last soldiers who were there to protect them have left.

Palestinian troops and masked militants have taken control of the piles of rubble that are all that remain of the homes of the settlers.

But as Palestinians enjoy a period of celebration, the world will watch to see what becomes of Gaza.

The international community says it is ready to help. It has promised the Palestinians billions of dollars' worth of extra financial support over the next three years. And there will be investment in major schemes to redevelop the vacated settlements.

But Palestinians fear that Israel will throttle any real hope of a long-term economic revival. They worry that even after it withdraws its troops, Israel will keep Gaza in a stranglehold.

The Israelis have so far not permitted the re-opening of Gaza's international airport. And they intend to keep control over the territory's airspace and coastline.

Israel will also retain a hold over all movement between Gaza and Egypt for at least some months to come - and Palestinians fear that it will be a lot longer than that.

Without freedom of passage and mobility Gaza will be doomed to be a prison - rather than the beginning of a peace process
Nabil Shaath
Palestinian Information Minister
Israel's troops may be leaving, but for now at least it is maintaining its control over all Gaza's routes to the outside world.

The Palestinian Information Minister, Nabil Shaath, says that addressing this problem is a priority.

"Item number one is freedom of movement, so that we can get our products in and get our exports out. On that basis we could really use the money that's been promised by the donors. We could get Palestinian and Arab private investors to come in.

"Without freedom of passage and mobility Gaza will be doomed to be a prison - rather than the beginning of a peace process."

'Beef up security'

But Gaza is a stronghold of groups like Hamas. Their suicide bombers have struck at Israel many times, and they talk of seeking - ultimately - to destroy it.

Israel says it needs to control the routes into Gaza to prevent the militants smuggling in weapons.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman says the Palestinian Authority needs to act before Israel can ease its grip.

Palestinian militants in Gaza City ahead of Israel's withdrawal
Israel says the Palestinians must bring militant groups under control

"If they beef up their work in dealing with the different terrorist groups, that lowers the risk involved in opening up the borders," says the spokesman.

"We are all interested in a successful Gaza, we're all interested in seeing the Gaza economy thrive - but they can also play a part."

But Palestinians argue that controlling Gaza is not the answer to Israel's security worries. They say the answer lies in ending the occupation of all Palestinian land - Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

"Hamas is there for a reason, and the reason is the evil of the occupation," says the political commentator, Iyad Siraj.

"People have the right to resist. They don't have right to kill innocent people on the streets of Jerusalem - but they have the right to resist."

And Hamas is not about to be swept aside. In fact it is claiming victory. It says that its many attacks on the settlements forced Israel into a retreat.

And it hopes that claim will boost its already substantial support. Hamas poses a major political and military challenge to the authority of the government of the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

Fragile situation

Tensions between the two sides flared into armed clashes several weeks ago, and some people fear that there could be more serious trouble to come.

But analyst Salah Abdelshafi doubts this.

"I'm not ignoring the fact that the situation is fragile," he says. "Hamas has a strong armed wing, and we might see isolated incidents but I don't think it will devolve into an open confrontation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas."

A Palestinian man carries national flags through the streets of Rafah
Analysts fear violence if no progress is made towards a Palestinian state

Of more concern to many people is the general security situation. Gaza is awash with weapons and minor militant groups and armed clans. High-profile kidnappings and even killings often go unpunished.

Trying to impose law and order is just one of the major challenges that Mr Abbas faces. And he knows that the world is watching.

If Gaza stays stable and starts to develop - and does not pose a continual threat to Israel - the Palestinian cause will be enhanced in Western eyes. It would suffer though if Gaza were to be riven by factional differences and become little more than a stronghold for Israel's most bitter enemies.

But Palestinians worry that, while they are being judged on their performance in Gaza, Israel will tighten its hold on the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Some of the best analysts in Gaza say they believe that unless there is significant progress towards an independent Palestinian state, there will be another eruption of violence - a third Intifada that would tear apart any hope of peace here, and further poison relations between the Arab world and the West.

Israel and the Palestinians



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