Gaza, Israel brace for pullout

KFAR DAROM, Gaza Strip – Separated by a towering concrete wall, Dan Amiel and Khalil Bashir are neighbors who have never met – and in all likelihood never will.

Amiel, a 20-year-old Israeli living in the heavily fortified Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in the heart of the Gaza Strip, lost half of his right leg in a Palestinian rocket attack last year. Bashir, a Palestinian schoolteacher, has for years lived under the gun: Israeli soldiers commandeered the top floors of his house in the village of Deir el Balah as an observation post, and his family sleeps in a single room downstairs.

Now Israel is poised to extricate Amiel and nearly 9,000 other settlers from Gaza after 38 years of occupation, handing over the dusty seaside strip to the more than 1.3 million Palestinians living there in a historic move that poses enormous tests for both societies.

Israel’s withdrawal from all 21 Gaza settlements and four others in the northern West Bank officially starts Monday, when troops and police begin knocking on doors, telling residents they must leave within 48 hours.

The planned evacuation, which marks the first time Israel has uprooted established communities from land the Palestinians claim for a future state, has opened deep fissures in Israeli society. Just as significant, however, are broad questions the hand-over poses for the struggling new Palestinian leadership and the tentative prospects for eventual peace between the two sides.

Palestinians are preparing to mark the pullout with street celebrations on a scale not seen in years. “Everything is selling fast,” said Gaza City souvenir shopkeeper Tareq Abu Dayyeh, whose merchandise includes Palestinian flags emblazoned with the slogan “Free Gaza” and “I Love Palestine” T-shirts.

But the Israeli withdrawal also spotlights the bare-knuckles competition between the governing Palestinian Authority and militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, all eager to claim credit for the pullout. “We regard it as a total victory for Hamas,” said Mahmoud Zahar, a physician who has survived multiple assassination attempts by Israel and last year became the group’s senior leader in Gaza.

The evacuation will sorely test the strength and backing of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a pragmatist who opposes armed struggle and wants to see Israel leave Gaza without an outbreak of attacks by Palestinian militants.

Rocket and mortar fire by groups such as Hamas would invite harsh Israeli reprisals and undercut Abbas’ effort to portray the withdrawal as an achievement for his 7-month-old government. Even an orderly exit will likely amplify Hamas’ claim that it chased Israel out, just as the militant group embarks on its inaugural run for seats in Palestinian parliamentary elections, tentatively set in January.

“We are on the verge of achieving a dream of the Palestinian people, a dream we have long been waiting for, and that is to see the occupiers start leaving our land,” Abbas told lawmakers in a Gaza City speech last week. While he spoke, masked gunmen strutted outside the parliament building, a reminder of the lawlessness that plagues many Palestinian cities, especially those in Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority is doing what it can to signal its readiness to keep order. On a sandy vacant lot in Gaza City, with the sparkling blue Mediterranean as a backdrop, hundreds of sweating Palestinian troops last week staged field drills for the cameras, marching in parade formation and struggling through a round of calisthenics. Their commander, Col. Mohammed Rawa, appealed to the international community to better arm Palestinian security forces, acknowledging they are outgunned by Hamas.

For Israel, the smoothness of the withdrawal will help determine whether months of turmoil leave its democracy damaged or stronger, and whether the rift between religious and secular Israelis widens further. It also remains to be seen whether the four-week pullout inspires more Israeli pullbacks in the West Bank or will instead allow the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon greater leeway in tightening its grip on the more than 100 Jewish settlements there.

“This is a precedent, and any precedent is either a success or failure,” said Guy Bechor, who heads the Middle East department of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Bechor said a smooth hand-over could lead to small unilateral pullbacks by Israel in the future, measured steps that he said would enhance long-term prospects for peace.

The Bush administration hopes the evacuation will breathe new life into its stalled diplomatic initiative, known as the road map. Palestinians hope the Gaza pullout will set in motion a chain of events that will culminate in the creation of an independent state. They already see signs of increased international pressurer on Israel to meet its commitments under the “road map” peace plan, which envisions statehood for them, and to return to the negotiating table to begin mapping out that state’s eventual borders.

They fear, however, that Sharon might instead use a successful withdrawal as an excuse to freeze the peace process and solidify Israel’s grip on large chunks of the West Bank. Sharon insists further progress will come after Palestinian leaders fulfill their commitment under the road map to dismantle armed groups.

As for the Jewish settlers facing evacuation, many are expected to wait until after the 48-hour warning starting early Monday before leaving. It is unclear how many people authorities will have to remove forcibly beginning Wednesday when the deadline expires, and how much resistance they will face from holdout settlers and thousands of extremist infiltrators from the West Bank who have dotted the settlements with tent cities.

About 1,100 of the 1,700 families to be evacuated have applied for government compensation.

Israel hopes to finish with all the evacuations, including military outposts and the settlements of the northern West Bank, by the start of Jewish holidays in early October. But it probably will not withdraw its final troops from a volatile strip along the border with Egypt until the end of the year.

No Israelis will remain in Gaza after then, Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said. “We will not be in any territory that is part of the recognized boundaries of Gaza,” Olmert said. “We will be out.”

Despite ferocious opposition, the withdrawal enjoys majority support among Israelis. A newly issued poll by researchers at Tel Aviv University found the plan backed by 60 percent of respondents, with 34 percent opposed.

But Israelis on both sides worry that the bitter debate has divided society so starkly that reconciliation may be difficult, if not impossible.


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