Sharon's plans cause unease as army kills 15 Palestinians

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - From where Ismail Nabah is trying to restore a grape vineyard overrun by Israeli bulldozers, the Jewish settlement of Netzarim looks more like a prison camp than a village.

Nabah, who is 41 and has cultivated the land here since he was a boy, can barely see the red roofs of the settlement, rising on the other side of a chain-link fence. Because of the settlement, most of his own land is now off-limits to him.

Now, he hears that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has proposed abandoning most of the Gaza settlements. He stopped his horse and plow, put the soiled fingers of his hands to his lips and blew a kiss to the sky. "They want to leave here, and we say, 'Inshallah,' " God willing, he said.

But Palestinian officials are expressing unease about Sharon's proposal. They worry that Sharon, through what he calls disengagement, might sever Gaza's links to Egypt, Israel and the West Bank, casting its impoverished people adrift and leaving them no better off than now.

Yesterday was one of the most violent periods here in six weeks, as the Israeli army, searching for militants, entered the eastern edge of Gaza City and killed at least 15 Palestinians.

Army officials said they had responded to militants firing more than 130 mortar rounds and anti-tank missiles at Netzarim and its access road. The fighting, which could be heard throughout Gaza City, raged until late afternoon.

Israeli officials said that among those killed was a member of the militant group Hamas suspected of assisting in an attack on an American convoy last October that killed three U.S. security guards. The Palestinian Authority has charged four militants and is putting them on trial, but American officials have expressed doubts that the arrests were genuine.

Uncertainty

Palestinian officials and academics here say that Sharon's proposed Gaza withdrawal leaves too many questions unanswered for anyone to know whether conditions here would improve. Gaza Strip could descend closer to chaos.

Farmers such as Nabah assume they would be able to reclaim their land and move their produce unfettered by Israeli checkpoints. But Israel could still control Gaza's borders with Egypt and Israel, keeping a firm grip on imports and exports, and on who can leave and enter. The fence that surrounds Gaza would most likely stay, and some Israeli Cabinet ministers envision a future in which all Palestinian workers are barred from Israel.

"The plan is not clear," said Salah Abdel Shafi, a Gaza economist who backs a joint independent Palestinian-Israel peace initiative called the Geneva Accords. "If the Israelis just leave but keep everything else the same, and leave us imprisoned, nothing will change."

A negotiated agreement with the Israelis is imperative, Shafi said, to ensure that Gaza has a future if and when the Israeli settlements are dismantled. Without an economic and social link to Israel and the West Bank, Shafi said, "Gaza will die."

And any notion that the violence against Israel would end with the departure of Jewish settlers without first reaching an agreement with the Palestinians is a dangerous miscalculation on Israel's part, said Jamal Zakout, a member of the Palestinian National Council.

'More complicated'

Sharon hinted at the rest of his agenda, Zakout said, when he talked last weekend of moving Gaza settlers to the West Bank - reducing the settler population in one area but expanding it in another.

"It will make the situation much more complicated," Zakout said. "Sharon is maneuvering between his own people, the Palestinians and the international community. He wants us to trade land - the Gaza Strip for the West Bank. He can force it on us, but it will only be a new form of aggression."

This week, the Israeli army's chief of staff proposed keeping soldiers in Gaza even if the settlers are evacuated, as a strategic measure and a bargaining chip for future negotiations. The leader of Israel's opposition Labor Party, Shimon Peres, criticized that statement yesterday.

"That is not a withdrawal," Peres said, adding that Sharon's comments were nothing more than "ideas floating in the air." He called for a complete and immediate exit from the Gaza Strip, and said it must be coupled with an agreement with the Palestinians, Europe and the United States.

Gaza has a vibrancy that at first glance masks its despair. Cars jam the streets, fruits overflow stands at crowded markets and universities are well attended. There is a constant hum from horn blasts, crowing roosters and merchants shouting to make a sale.

But 65 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, defined as $2 a day per person. Children dart barefoot on unpaved streets where broken sewer lines spill. Donkey carts are as common as cars, and armed members of political factions rule openly by force.

In Gaza City, masked men brandishing assault rifles last week stormed the central police station, beat up the police chief and killed an officer - a rampage born of a dispute over corruption. Yesterday, even as Israeli soldiers fought with Palestinians, two other armed Palestinian groups shot it out near a police station in the center of the city in a money dispute between clans.

'Economic disaster'

The head of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, remains under virtual house arrest by the Israeli army in the West Bank city of Ramallah and has not set foot in Gaza in more than two years.

The leadership void here is filled by militant groups such as Hamas and the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. "The Palestinian Authority does not rule Gaza," said Shafi, the economist. "The Palestinian Authority exists only to pay each other's salaries."

Shafi said that the influence of the militant groups would only increase if Israel withdrew unilaterally, which could spark fighting between competing Palestinian police forces for control over areas vacated by Israel.

"The future is very scary," he said. "We are already in a state of complete collapse. We are an economic disaster area."

Palestinian officials complain that Israeli raids such as yesterday's only make matters worse, and further weaken the authority's tenuous hold on power.

The fighting in Gaza occurred on a crowded street as masked Palestinian gunmen fired at tanks and other armored vehicles as children heading home from school watched from sidewalks. This time, however, the fighting was well away from Nabah, the farmer.

He used to earn about $18,000 a year with grapes, known throughout Gaza for their sweet flavor. Since fighting erupted in 2000, he has made no more than $3,000 a year and has relied on aid from the United Nations and Red Cross to feed his family.

He owns 18 acres of land, but can use only 10. Farmland surrounding his farm has been turned from green to brown by Israeli bulldozers that have clear-cut brush and trees and knocked down buildings used as cover by Palestinian militants to shoot at Netzarim.

Nabah said that last month, army tanks and armored bulldozers headed toward the beach, tearing up a small plot of land where his grapes were growing and were almost ready to be picked. A new Israeli army guard post went up next to the road, just north of his home.

This week, Nabah returned to the soil with his wooden horse-drawn plow and dug the hardened soil. He was thankful to find that the heavy army vehicles that had cut his plants had left their roots intact. There was still hope for a harvest.

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