In Gaza, a riot of unrealistic hopes

As Sharon vows pullout, Israelis and Palestinians fight among themselves

October 18, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip - Having cashed in his retirement account and borrowed still more, David Pimienta knows that many of his fellow Israelis would think him foolish at best.

He used the money this summer to build his dream house in this Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, land from which Israel's prime minister wants to withdraw as early as next year.

Gaza is where ideology has often trumped reason. Now, Israelis and Palestinians are re-examining their beliefs.

After decades of promoting expansion of settlements in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pledged to withdraw from them - 21 in all, including Neve Dekalim. The 8,100 settlers would have to leave.

After decades of fighting to drive Israelis out, the 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza now are fighting one another over who will exercise power if they indeed withdraw.

Pimienta ignored the political turmoil around him, as did the half-dozen Chinese workers who built his house. It was one of seven under construction in the settlement. Workers broke ground for them a day after Palestinians fatally shot a Jewish settler and her four children.

Far from being worried that Israeli soldiers might soon force him to leave, Pimienta lamented only that he could not afford a bigger house.

"I very much want a second floor," he said, watching the workers pour pillars strong enough to support a concrete roof as protection against mortars, "because then I'll have a view of the sea."

Pimienta, 31, is the vice principal of a high school in Israel. His voice was subdued, his checked shirt neatly tucked in, his pistol in his waistband hidden from view. He said he couldn't understand why anyone would question his building a new house.

"The government feels that the people of Israel are weak, despair and have no strength," he said. "That is not the case. My place as a Jew is here. The leadership is confused."

Neither settlers nor Palestinians seem prepared - politically, militarily, emotionally - for the significant changes that may come next year.

Sharon is battling his Likud Party, whose members voted against his plan for withdrawal. Infighting among Palestinian factions over who will inherit control from Israel has swelled the number of kidnappings, murders and street battles. Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, the government that came into being 10 years ago but is derided for its inability to deliver even basic services, remains largely on the sidelines.

Gaza's jarring reality inspires grand hopes. For such a small amount of territory - 226 square miles, about one-fifth the size of Rhode Island - the competing expectations are outsized: Gaza as a viable, democratic Palestinian state; Gaza as an Islamic theocracy; Gaza as a permanent home for Israelis as well as Palestinians.

The expectations are also irreconcilable.

Sharon wants parliament to approve plans next month to pay Jewish settlers up to $300,000 per household to leave. He announced plans to begin dismantling the settlements next summer.

Competing Palestinian groups want to take over the land and buildings, but there is no evidence that the Palestinian Authority has come up with a plan for filling the vacuum or avoiding fighting between militant factions.

"I don't see a serious readiness on the Palestinian side to receive Gaza, and I don't see that Sharon has a plan to give control to a Palestinian body," said Ephraim Sneh, a retired Israeli general who was head of the Israeli military government in the West Bank and is now a member of parliament.

"The worst-case scenario is that the Israeli defense forces are out and there is nobody left in charge," he said. "There is anarchy. Terror prevails and local warlords take over.

"My advice to both prime ministers is to announce a transition team and set a time for an appointment."

None of the parties has much to show for the past four years of violence. The dead include more than 3,000 Palestinians, about a third of them in Gaza. The number of Israeli dead is approaching 1,000.

The intransigence of the Jewish settlers has won them the right to live in heavily armed communities where Israeli soldiers often outnumber the people they are assigned to protect.

The intransigence of Palestinian militants, and the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, has produced a society where civic problems are often settled by guns, where unemployment hovers above 50 percent, where every institution seems another training ground for extremists.

"We are reaping what we have planted there," said Abdul Jawad Saleh, a reform member of the Palestinian legislature from the West Bank. "This is the outcome of the absence of institutions and a result of agencies built on the influence of certain persons," a reference to the corruption associated with Arafat.

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