Gaza Strip withdrawal may become turning point

Jewish settlers' evacuation slated to begin tomorrow

August 14, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Early tomorrow, thousands of Israeli soldiers and police will enter the Gaza Strip's Jewish settlements and knock on the doors of residents, giving them a final warning to leave their homes within 48 hours or be evicted by force.

And so will begin, after months of intense debate and national turmoil, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal of all 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip plus 500 others living in four settlements in the West Bank.

But even before soldiers approach the first settler, Israelis and Palestinians are looking beyond the drama unfolding in Gaza to a larger issue: After the withdrawal from Gaza, what comes next for Israel and the Palestinians?

Will Palestinian militants act emboldened by the withdrawal and launch a fresh wave of attacks against Israel? Will Israel, after the anguish over evacuating Gaza, rush to strengthen its hold on the West Bank? Or, as the Bush administration hopes, will this watershed event break the stalemate in the Middle East and create a new chance for a lasting peace?

No one knows the answer to any of those questions.

What appears certain is that all the dire predictions in Israel that the withdrawal would lead to a civil war have proved false.

Israeli security forces are expecting as many as two-thirds of the settlers to leave quietly, if sadly, during the 48-hour grace period. Those determined to stay will be removed by an overwhelming force of 55,000 Israeli troops, who have been training on how to extract settlers from their homes. The military plans to use four soldiers per settler, one to hold each arm and leg.

The Palestinian Authority is deploying thousands of its own security forces to protect the settlements from rocket attacks and looting by Palestinian militants.

For both sides, these are large changes that once seemed almost unthinkable. Israel is giving up territory, after 38 years, for much less than a guarantee of full, lasting peace; the Palestinians, no less exhausted by the last five years of violence, are inheriting territory they sought to call their own, but without the resources to provide people with jobs.

If all goes according to plan, the Jewish settlers will be evacuated within a month. Then the Israeli military will demolish the settlers' homes, remove the Jewish cemeteries, dismantle its military bases and thereby bring an end to its occupation of Gaza.

But an attack by a Jewish extremists against Palestinians - similar to the attack this month by an Israeli soldier who had deserted and shot to death four Israeli Arabs before being killed by a mob - could be enough to spark wider violence, though it would probably fail to stop the withdrawal.

Among Palestinians, there is a desire for calm. The major armed Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have agreed to take no action, the better to allow the settlers to pack their belongings and leave.

Among the settlers, meanwhile, there is a growing sense of defeat and an acceptance of their fate. Stores in the Gaza settlements are closing. Families have started packing their belongings. Many settlers' homes are already empty.

Despite a well-organized, aggressive campaign of roadblocks, prayers at the Western Wall and public rallies, the settlers have failed to persuade a majority of the country to oppose the pullout. Recent polls indicate more than 55 percent of Israelis are in favor of the withdrawal.

This is no small matter in Israel. After flourishing for decades as an intimidating political force, the settler movement has suddenly come to seem smaller, exposed as a well-organized, vocal minority whose fears of civil strife because of the pullout appear to be unfounded.

"If most of the settlers are not there by the time the army goes in, if the violence isn't that violent, if it's one or two pockets snuffed out quickly, if this whole debate on disengagement, ripping the country apart, if all this dies with a whimper rather than a bang - then the bubble will have been burst," says Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University.

Bang or whimper, the spotlight will then shift to the Palestinians.

The burden on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is to demonstrate that the Palestinians can maintain calm in the Gaza Strip - a desperately poor sliver of land where 1.3 million Palestinians live in a fragmented society controlled by corrupt political forces, militant factions and armed gangs.

If Abbas shows the world that the Palestinians are capable of running Gaza, the Palestinians can make a strong argument that it's time for Israel to return the West Bank and for the Palestinians to achieve statehood.

But it will not be easy for Abbas.

There are widespread fears that soon after Israel's withdrawal, thousands of Palestinians will loot or destroy whatever the Israelis leave behind.

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