Letter from Gaza: On evacuated lands, new challenges planted

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 23-Aug-05 | Author: James Bennet| Source: International Herald Tribune

A mural in Gaza, created by the militant group Hamas, celebrates the withdrawal of Israeli settlers and troops. The question now is whether the area will be able to govern itself.
GAZA Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has provoked deep questions for Israelis about the direction of Zionism.

But while the fundamental question posed for Israel is whither, for Palestine it is whether - whether gaining more control over more territory than they have ever held will at last lead Palestinians to an independent state, or to a dead end.

Palestinians are now post-Oslo, post-Arafat, and soon they may be postoccupation in Gaza. "This is a test," said Basil Eleiwa, a Gaza businessman who sees this anvil of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a potential tourist paradise. "Either we prove to the entire world that we deserve to have an independent state in Gaza, the West Bank and part of Jerusalem, or we prove the exact opposite."

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, faces a daunting set of interlocking challenges: preventing Palestinian terrorism, ending the chaos in Palestinian cities, reviving the Palestinian economy and persuading Israel to return to the bargaining table and to consider the far more painful step of removing tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank. As his base for achieving all this Abbas must use battered Gaza, which is poorer and more politically and religiously radical than the West Bank.

Many Palestinians suspect an Israeli trap, intended to divide Gazans from West Bank Palestinians, turn Gazans into wards of the world, and doom the national movement.

But Abbas sees great potential, his aides said. While assuring his people that he intends to push for more territory, including a capital in Jerusalem, Abbas has begun exhorting them to immediately take advantage of the Israeli move. "Today, we should start working hard to rebuild our country, to rebuild our institutions, our economy, so that we can build a noble life in peace, in security," he said Friday.

The conflict has suddenly shed its most predictable quality - its predictability. In this unfamiliar state of flux, Abbas's advisers say they see possibilities for swift progress. For example, most analysts anticipate Israeli elections next spring, and the conventional view is that there will be no movement toward peace talks during the campaign.

The thinking is that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will have to move rightward to hold off a challenge by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Abbas's advisers think they can use Israeli elections to shift the consensus Israeli view that there is no Palestinian negotiating partner. They say they can do this by handling Israel's withdrawal smoothly and possibly proposing a new peace initiative by the end of the year.

Palestinian officials insist, though, that their options depend partly on Israeli moves. Practically speaking, nothing has yet changed for Palestinians in Gaza. Israeli forces still control the settlement lands, and even once they pull back from them they will still have a grip on all of Gaza's crossing points, its coastline and its airspace.

Israel cites fears of arms smuggling and possible future attacks.

"The Israelis so far did not explain to us exactly the depth of the withdrawal," said Jibril Rajoub, Abbas's national security adviser. "Whether it is total - comprehensive - or not. Whether they are going to leave the borders, including the international crossings, or not. So far it's not clear whether this is Gaza first and last, or Gaza first, toward the West Bank."

Arguing there was no Palestinian partner, Israel chose to act unilaterally, rather than through negotiations. Whether or not the Israelis were right, their withdrawal, coming after years of bloody attacks on settlers and soldiers here, has persuaded most Palestinians that Israel will respond only to violence. To try to strengthen support for his government and for future negotiations, Abbas has been urging the Israelis to deliver an agreed solution to the question of border crossing. So far, he has gotten nowhere.

He also has plenty of other problems. Some of his allies acknowledge that he has failed to articulate for Palestinians precisely how his demands for a halt to terrorism and plans for state-building in Gaza will lead to national liberation, the essential framework of Palestinian politics.

Many Palestinians say they resent the notion that they must build a mini-state to Israel's satisfaction before they can have sovereignty.

Further, as attention focuses on Gaza, Palestinians in the West Bank are likely to feel ignored, while Israel may continue expanding settlements there.

Businessmen complain that they still have seen no master plan for how the governing Palestinian Authority will use the settlement land. Abbas still appears to be struggling to keep up with the pace of change on the ground.

He is also facing a political threat from the militant group Hamas, which is preparing to challenge his own, weakened, Fatah faction in legislative elections Jan. 21.

The Palestinian Authority has trotted out slogans about economic renewal, which has important but limited appeal. Banners stretched by the Palestinian Authority over Gaza streets also proclaim, "Gaza Today, the West Bank and Jerusalem Tomorrow" - a promise that may raise expectations for immediate results that Abbas cannot meet.

Abbas, popularly called Abu Mazen, has yet to try to collect the weapons of militants, and some Palestinians are calling him weak.

For all the massed obstacles, Abbas's advisers say that he sees a way forward. The first requirement, which one adviser called "the prerequisite for everything," will be to prevent attacks on Israel.

Abbas must also proceed quickly with his efforts to restore law and order and to reform the overlapping security services.

Abbas is planning some high-profile action against officials believed to be corrupt, his advisers said. He will begin with easy marks - officials who can be isolated from their allies - but over time, the advisers say, the prosecutions will form a pattern and persuade Palestinians that he is serious about reform.

That view will be reinforced if the Palestinian Authority overcomes its history of inefficiency and corruption and allocates the settlement lands fairly and openly.

Abbas is likely to have one resource to help him along: money from donors, which is expected to pour into Gaza. His aides say they have pledges from Gulf states of enough money to rebuild every house demolished by Israel during the uprising.