Settlers gone, but Israel isn't

Jerusalem retains authority over Gaza's access and foreign trade, despite withdrawal

September 24, 2005

GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP -- It has been weeks since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, but Abdul Hadi Abu Hadaf still gets a thrill throwing open his second-story window each morning.

For five years, Israeli forces ordered the 56-year-old farmer to keep his window shut, afraid that Palestinian snipers would use his house to fire on Jewish settlers in nearby Gush Katif. Israeli soldiers also plowed under his olive groves, orange trees and date palms to make space for a watchtower and parking spaces for two tanks.

"I've been living cooped up like a chicken. I was forbidden even to sit here in my front yard," Hadaf says, sitting on a plastic chair beneath a tree outside his cinder-block house.

Palestinians across the Gaza Strip are reveling in small but significant new freedoms. Traveling the 25 miles from one end of Gaza to the other, a journey once measured in hours or days because of checkpoints and road closures, is now a 45-minute commute. Machine gun watchtowers that kept much of the Palestinian population under constant surveillance have vanished. The Jewish settlements they grew to hate and fear lie in ruins, popular attractions now for scrap metal scavengers and busloads of Palestinian schoolchildren on field trips.

But amid the fanfare, a bitter realization is settling in that even though the Israelis are gone, the Palestinians remain deeply dependent on their former occupiers for everything, including their future.

Although Israeli soldiers and settlers are no longer here, Israel maintains authority over Gaza's airspace and ocean access. It also oversees the import or export of all goods to the Gaza Strip's 1.3 million residents, and controls access by the trickle of Gazans allowed to work, visit family or seek medical assistance in Israel.

Without any guarantees that Israel will ease access, investors are unlikely to flock to Gaza anytime soon. The sliver of Mediterranean coastline will remain cut off, Palestinian leaders fear, and locked in grinding poverty.

"It feels good right now in Gaza to walk around and have this much more land and to be able to go out to the sea. But slowly the mentality of imprisonment is going to set in," said Diana Buttu, legal adviser and spokeswoman for the Palestinian Authority. "It's going to be a matter of months before there is going to be lot of anger in this place all over again."

Unless, Buttu adds, the Israelis and Palestinians can reach agreements to allow greater Palestinian control over Gaza's borders and its future.

Border with Egypt

One of key unresolved issues between Israelis and Palestinians is the border between Gaza and Egypt. Israel withdrew its forces from the border this month and wants the crossing point at Rafah closed for six months until Egypt, the Palestinians and the international community can agree on how to maintain security. In the meantime, Israel would allow goods and people to cross the Egypt-Gaza border at its own facility in Kerem Shalom, at the southeast corner of the Gaza Strip.

But the Palestinians have objected, insisting that if the occupation is over, Palestinians should be granted freedom of movement across the border with Egypt, without interference from Israel.

To allay Israeli concerns that the border crossing might be used to import weapons or flood Israel with cheap goods from Egypt, Palestinians say they would welcome a third party, perhaps the European Union, to monitor customs. But no agreement has been reached.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is pushing ahead with preparations at the Rafah crossing, though the checkpoint was left in tatters when Israeli forces departed. Electricity, water and telephone lines were cut. Air conditioning was pulled out, along with furniture, ceilings and other basic equipment.

On a recent afternoon, dozens of Palestinian workers were scrambling to prepare the checkpoint for reopening, installing ceiling tiles, painting over the blue-and-white Israeli national colors at the entrance and setting up body and luggage scanners.

During a tour of the facility Wednesday, Abbas announced that the border would be open for two days, starting yesterday, for students and humanitarian cases. But he has said that he would not open the border permanently without coordination from the international community.

For Abbas, a Palestinian-controlled border would be a significant achievement as he struggles to build support among various Palestinian militant groups by demonstrating that negotiations, not violence, will allow the Palestinians to achieve independence.

Law and order

But the Palestinian leader, also known as Abu Mazen, is under considerable pressure to prove that he can maintain law and order in Gaza.

Abbas' efforts have had a dismal start. In the days after Israel's departure from Gaza, thousands of people poured across the border. The Palestinian Authority's security forces were helpless to stop them. In the chaos, Israeli authorities say, Palestinians smuggled in huge quantities of weaponry.

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