GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas signed a decree Saturday appropriating Jewish settlement land for public use once Israel’s evacuation of Gaza is complete, and he scheduled postponed Palestinian legislative elections for Jan. 25.
Both measures are meant to ease suspicions among Abbas’ political rivals over the intentions of the Palestinian Authority and encourage them to hold their fire during the pullout.
The withdrawal paused for the Jewish Sabbath, but the first Israeli forces arrived before daybreak today to evacuate Katif and Atzmona, the last settlements in the main Gush Katif bloc.
The gate in front of Katif was locked, and youths smoking cigarettes loitered around piles of incendiary materials like hay, tires and wooden planks, preparing for resistance. A sign indicated both resignation and defiance. “We’ll be back soon,” it read. The main force of soldiers and police was expected later this morning.
Israeli officials said they planned to speed up this week’s timetable. The last Gaza settlements should be empty by Monday, and the army plans to begin clearing two settlements in the northern West Bank on Tuesday, they said.
Military officials said some 2,000 anti-withdrawal protesters had slipped into those two settlements, and some were armed. They said police anticipated stiffer resistance than they encountered in Gaza, where the evacuation went swiftly and with relatively little violence.
Officials said the army was trying to stem the flow of protesters into the area, though the terrain was open and difficult to control.
Egypt’s president cautioned Israel against trying to seal off the Gaza Strip’s people after the pullout, saying that would bring the frustrations and discontent that breed violence.
Hosni Mubarak also said Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon is the only Israeli leader who can make peace. The Egyptian leader said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot that Sharon has the necessary grasp of security issues, the power and the decisiveness to make peace, and praised him as a man of his word.
Abbas’ proclamation seizing control of the evacuated Gaza land seeks to assert the authority of the Palestinian government in an area where political warlords largely dominate and where official corruption is ingrained. Many Palestinians feared prime land could end up in the hands of senior officials of the ruling Fatah organization.
The 21 Gaza settlements, with 8,500 residents and several military installations, controlled about 20 percent of the coastal strip that also is home to 1.3 million Palestinians. About 9 percent of the land expropriated by Israel is claimed by private owners, who will have an opportunity to reclaim their property, while the rest had been in the public domain.
As Abbas issued his decree, dozens of masked gunmen from the Hamas movement briefly took over the central square of Gaza City in a show of defiance against the Palestinian Authority’s leader.
“We will keep all our weapons, and our military equipment, and we will develop it further, God willing. Our battle with the enemy is long and will continue,” said a spokesman known only as Abu Obaideh.
He said there would be no letup in the campaign to drive Israel out of the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Confirmation of the date for legislative elections was a gesture to Hamas, which made a strong showing in some municipal ballots earlier this year. When Abbas’ government canceled the July 17 legislative vote, Hamas charged it was trying to stave off an electoral loss to the militant group.
Despite Israeli demands that he disarm militants, Abbas has been trying to get Hamas and other groups to join in the political process and put aside violence. Giving them chances at the ballot box is a key part of that initiative.
Hamas’ political leaders welcomed the date for the election. Hassan Yousef, a Hamas leader in the West Bank, said his group was ready for its first national contest.
Sharon has said Abbas must rein in both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, dismantling what he calls the “terrorist infrastructure,” as a condition for resuming the U.S.-sponsored peace process known as the “road map.”
But Abbas reiterated Saturday that Israel must halt the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, also an essential element of the road map.
The militants have kept up low-level attacks during the Gaza withdrawal, but relative calm has prevailed since the pullout began Monday.
On Saturday, three rockets or mortar shells fell near settlement perimeters, but caused no damage or casualties. On Friday, two militants were wounded when explosives they were carrying detonated prematurely.
Israeli officials said troops in Gaza expected to complete the evacuation of Katif, Atzmona and Elei Sinai and remove a few infiltrators in Slav today. Residents of Netzarim, the final settlement, have pledged to leave quietly Monday.
Soldiers and police would then turn their attention to the West Bank settlements of Sanur and Homesh, where opponents of the withdrawal waited to mount a determined resistance.
Setters already voluntarily left two other West Bank settlements slated for dismantling, Ganim and Kadim.