Gaza gets ready for a taste of statehood

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 12-Aug-05 | Author: Greg Myre| Source: International Herald Tribune

At a factory in Gaza City, workers sewed Palestinian flags to be waved when the Israelis leave.
GAZA In a land of poverty, violence and dashed dreams of statehood, Palestinians are revving up for the rarest of events in the Gaza Strip: a celebration.

The Palestinian Authority is planning rallies as if it were the homestretch of an election campaign. Small sewing factories are cranking out thousands of street banners, T-shirts and backpacks that proclaim, "Today Gaza, tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem." That message, designed to give Palestinians hope that Gaza first will not be Gaza last, is not exactly what the Israelis want to hear.

Israel's planned evacuation of Jewish settlers and soldiers from Gaza, an operation set to begin Monday, has generated at least a small streak of optimism among Gazans. For the first time in decades, for example, Gazans may be able to travel abroad without securing Israeli permission.

Still, they say, the optimism is tempered by the false dawns of the past decade and the belief that Israel will wield control over Gaza from its boundaries.

"I think there was a collective depression that permeated Gaza," said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer raised in Canada who serves as an adviser to the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. "There is a small window of opportunity here, and we're trying to get people excited about what could happen. They're leaving. We're staying. And it's time to rebuild."

The Palestinian Authority is sending workers door-to-door to prepare families for the withdrawal, though their message makes it sound as if a hurricane is blowing in from the Mediterranean. Families are advised to stock up on food, water and medicine in case the pullout turns turbulent and Israel's security forces impose curfews and closures.

A pamphlet being distributed to every household in Gaza addresses frequently asked questions, like, "Will I be able to reach my job in Gaza's industrial zone during the withdrawal?" Answer: It's not clear.

As Palestinians count down the days until the Israeli departure, many share a wish to stroll the grounds of the 21 Jewish settlements for a close-up look at the single-family homes with red-tile roofs and modest gardens.

"I want to go to Gush Katif, in the south. I hear it is the most beautiful," said Ahmed Kazaer, 50, who runs a sewing factory in Gaza City that is making T-shirts for the withdrawal.

But even this simple desire could be put on hold for two months or more. Israel has set aside a month to evacuate the settlers. After the settlers go, the military will probably need another few weeks to tear down the more than 1,500 homes in Gaza, a move that the Palestinians have approved.

When the soldiers leave and the Palestinian Authority gains control, its first step will be to send technical teams to survey the settlements and ensure they are safe. The Palestinians have complained of receiving limited information about the settlements and say this could also take weeks.

Eventually, the Palestinian Authority plans to take Gazans on organized bus tours of the settlements, but this is not likely before October, Buttu said.

Both Palestinian and Israeli leaders, as well as the security forces, are trying to coordinate to ensure there will be no Palestinian mortar or rocket fire during the Israeli withdrawal, and no storming and looting of the settlements by Palestinians after the Israelis leave for good.

Israel wants to avoid the perception of withdrawing under fire, while the Palestinian Authority seeks to demonstrate its control over the newly acquired territory. But Gaza is prone to chaos, and celebration could dissolve into anarchy.

Abbas's Fatah movement, which dominates the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, the Islamic faction that carried out many of the deadliest attacks against Israel, are both claiming credit for the Israeli withdrawal and may hold rival events.

Jamal Abu Samhadanah, leader of the Popular Resistance Committees, a small armed faction, said the Palestinian Authority should "use all its cars and jeeps to get people to the settlements to celebrate immediately." He added, "These are going to be beautiful moments, and no one is allowed to prevent us from celebrating."

Meanwhile, Gaza's lawlessness is on display almost daily. Western aid workers have been kidnapped on several occasions recently but were quickly released unharmed. The International Committee of the Red Cross suspended field operations this week after one of its offices was sprayed with bullets. Last week, assailants set off a bomb outside the home of Zuhair Sourani, chief justice of the Palestinian courts.

"I don't think I was the target, but this was intended to terrorize the judiciary," Sourani said. He threatened to resign but agreed to remain after meeting Abbas and receiving round-the-clock police protection outside his Gaza City home.

Sourani said he urged Abbas to use "an iron fist against Palestinians sporting illegal weapons. Mr. Abbas is a man who wants to uphold the law, but he must show that the Palestinian Authority can fight whoever is breaking the law."

Still, there is a sense of anticipation not felt here in recent years. Ask a Gazan to recall the last time of hope, and he or she is likely to cite the 1994 arrival of Yasser Arafat, who initially established the Palestinian Authority in Gaza after more than a quarter-century in exile.

Or perhaps a Gazan would recall the 1998 visit of President Bill Clinton, which was viewed by many here as a sign that statehood was on the way.

But the past five years have been bleak, even by Gaza's standards. The Palestinian uprising in September 2000 brought an end to peace negotiations, and Israel sealed its border to most of the tens of thousands of Gazans who used to commute to work daily.

More than 1.3 million Palestinians, most of them classified as refugees, are packed into a territory about 8 kilometers wide and 40 kilometers long, or about 5 miles wide and 25 miles long. Israel has controlled about a quarter of the land in Gaza, and overall, the territory has few jobs, no major industries and no prospect of sustaining itself as an independent economic entity.

Palestinians say the Israeli departure will not improve the lives of Gazans if it is not accompanied by freedom of movement. Palestinians say they must be able to build a seaport, which Israel has agreed to, but which will take two to three years to construct. Palestinians also insist on reopening an airport in southern Gaza that the Israelis closed at the beginning of the uprising; so far the Israelis refuse, citing security concerns.

Palestinians say it is essential for people and goods to flow freely between Gaza and the West Bank, and the Palestinians want control of the border with Egypt. Israel has not yet agreed to relinquish control on these fronts. However, the sides appear to be moving toward a deal that would effectively put the Palestinians in charge of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

This would allow Gazans to come and go to the wider world without passing through Israeli security, which has not been the case since Israel captured Gaza from Egypt in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and began its occupation.

Israeli gets 8 years for killing

An Israeli military tribunal sentenced an ex-sergeant to eight years in jail Thursday for killing a British activist who was trying to protect Palestinian civilians during violence in Gaza in 2003, Reuters reported from Camp Bar-Lev, Israel. The sentence was the harshest punishment given to an Israeli soldier for actions in a combat zone since the start of the Palestinian uprising nearly five years ago.

The ex-sergeant, Taysir Hayb, was convicted in June of manslaughter for shooting Tom Hurndall, an activist who died in London in January 2004 after spending nine months in a coma.