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Last Updated: Friday, 15 July 2005, 15:47 GMT 16:47 UK
Hopes and fears as Gaza awaits pullout

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Jerusalem

Palestinian children play on the beach in Gaza
Some Palestinians worry about what will happen after withdrawal

It is only a month until Israel begins its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which it has occupied since 1967.

With Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon staking everything on the plan, it now seems unstoppable.

Optimism about Israeli plans is not something that comes frequently to Gaza, but engineering student Mohammed el-Oksha has begun to feel it.

"I'm hoping that withdrawal goes ahead because it'll bring a better future for the Palestinians, after years of political and economic collapse," he said.

Ziad Abu Sares, a policeman, agreed.

"It's very good news," he said.

"It'll create lots of jobs for Palestinian people. If Israel sticks to its word and withdraws from Gaza, the situation here will improve in all kinds of ways. Even tourism will return."

Unresolved issues

Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians live in extremely cramped conditions in one of the most densely populated areas on earth. Israel's 8,000 settlers occupy 15-20% of the land in Gaza, according to a World Bank report.

The frequent closures of crossing points into Israel during the Palestinian uprising has meant a calcified economy. Unemployment is over 70% and many families are dependent on aid to survive.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon has vowed that the withdrawal will go ahead

So disengagement doesn't just mean land to the Palestinians.

But delivering on the expectations could take longer than most people want. The list of things that Palestinians want sorted out in the next four weeks is long.

Diana Buttu, the spokeswoman for the Palestinians' disengagement office, said she was still waiting on word from the Israelis about who would control Gaza's borders in a month's time, whether Israel would allow Gaza's port and airport to function and how Palestinians would be given safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank.

Without answers to these and several other issues, no one can predict whether Palestinians from Gaza will carry Israeli or Palestinian ID cards after 17 August, what the tax laws will be, or even how much disengagement will cost the Palestinians.

Disbelief

Not that many of those Ms Buttu meets outside her office in Gaza every day believe it will happen.

"When I talk to people here about what I'm doing to prepare for disengagement, their attitude is 'yeah, right'," she said.

There is certainly a heavy dose of cynicism hanging over Gaza's streets.

Daoud Abu-Hamza is 25 and sells cold drinks to passers-by in Gaza City. He said he had seen nothing to dispel his pessimism.

Click below for a detailed map of Israel's disengagement plan

"I don't see any evidence of things changing," he said.

"Israel is still destroying Palestinian houses, not settlers' houses. And Israel doesn't stick to its agreements. We've talked a lot, and signed a lot of agreements, but we never see any changes on the ground. If withdrawal goes ahead, Gaza will move from a small prison to a bigger prison."

Years of mistrust have led many Palestinians to believe that nothing the Palestinians do will influence Israel.

Yet Mr Sharon has faced down serious political opposition within his own country to push the plan forward.

Now with only a month to go before soldiers begin evacuating settlers, the numbers of cynics in Gaza are slowly shrinking.

Fears

Ms Buttu said the Palestinian Authority had plans to try to get the economy started again for the day after disengagement.

Crucial to this is ensuring that people and goods can move in and out of Gaza freely, but that may depend on the Palestinians having a good relationship with Israel after withdrawal, and at the moment that is far from certain.

Israeli settlers erect tents for protesters ahead of the Gaza withdrawal
Some settlers in Gaza are planning to resist leaving

Mohammed Bakir sees things the way many of his compatriots do.

A caretaker in Gaza, he said his greatest fear was that the Israelis would, as he sees it, retaliate for giving back Gaza to the Palestinians.

"We understand how the Israelis retaliate when something happens," he said, referring to the recent attacks on Israel by Palestinian militants.

"But how will they retaliate after this?"


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