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Palestinians strive to show readiness for withdrawal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - On a sweltering summer morning, Col. Mahmoud Rawagh of the Palestinian National Security Forces is reviewing his military cadets as they march across an exercise field strewn with rubble, the cadets not quite in step.

Rawagh's charges - some of them trim and fit, dressed in crisp olive uniforms and military boots; others gray-haired, overweight, or clad in T-shirts and dusty dress shoes - are among thousands of Palestinian security forces training to maintain calm during Israel's withdrawal from Gaza's 21 Jewish settlements.

The Palestinian Authority is making extraordinary efforts to assure Israeli officials that it can prevent militants from firing rockets at the settlements or launching other attacks, and thereby enable Israeli soldiers and police to remove Gaza's 8,500 settlers.

"Our determination is great, and we are very anxious to get back our homeland," says Rawagh, in charge of the troops at Ansar military camp in Gaza City. "We want the Israeli army to succeed."

As Israel makes its final preparations to begin evicting settlers next week, the Palestinians are scrambling to prepare, too, to show the world that they are ready to inherit the land Israel will abandon.

"We want to present a civilized picture of the Palestinian people to the world," says Diab Nemer Allouh, spokesman for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party in Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority is dressing up Gaza by whitewashing graffiti-covered walls, trimming overgrown trees and trying to sweep the streets clean of dust.

Stretched across the streets of downtown Gaza City, banners offer Palestinians this reminder: "Our land is coming back. Let's protect it."

There are also plans for celebrations to mark the end of Israel's 38-year occupation of this spit of land where 8,500 settlers live among 1.3 million Palestinians.

The authority is spending $1.7 million on musicians, dancers and giveaways of T-shirts, banners, posters, jeans and head scarves. All the festivities, organizers say, will emphasize the need for Palestinian unity.

"It will be a whole national party of victory," Allouh says.

But Palestinian unity does not run deep. Just beneath the surface is a brewing feud between the Palestinian Authority, led by Abbas, and the Islamic militant group Hamas, over whom should be credited for bringing about Israel's withdrawal.

Israel says it is leaving Gaza to shorten its defensive borders, minimize friction between Israelis and Palestinians and perhaps get the stalled peace process moving. Hamas and other militant factions maintain that their armed struggle drove Israel's settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip, and that the use of violence is a model for the future expulsion of Israel from the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, is eager to prove that tireless negotiations will lead to an independent Palestinian state. The authority has hung banners across the city, promising "Today Gaza, tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem."

There have been reports in the Palestinian news media that Hamas is preparing its own celebrations, with military parades with jeeps, rocket launchers and other weapons on full display, in an attempt to steal the limelight from the Palestinian Authority.

Likewise, Hamas accuses the Palestinian Authority of distracting the people with free T-shirts and dancing into thinking the authority is behind disengagement.

"It's not a victory for the authority. Gaza did not come back because of negotiations," says Ghazi Hamad, a member of Hamas and editor of the Hamas weekly newspaper al-Resla. "Gaza came as the result of the armed struggle and as the result of the blood of the martyrs. Some people are afraid that the authority will use disengagement for its own interest."

A recent poll indicates that most Palestinians agree with Hamas. According to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 72 percent of Palestinians view Israel's withdrawal as a victory for the armed struggle.

Hamas made a strong showing in local elections in Gaza and the West Bank in May, and it plans to participate in long-delayed parliamentary elections in January. Many voters said they were fed up with corruption and mismanagement in the Palestinian Authority.

But the Palestinians may not have the strength to endure another round of violence.

"After Gaza is handed back, I don't want there to be fighting. We've had enough young blood shed. I want to turn to negotiations for the return of the West Bank," says Mosbah Shamalakh, 65, a farmer whose cropland was taken over by Israeli forces guarding the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in 2001.

Since then, Shamalakh's family has resorted to hawking vegetables on the street instead of growing them. Once considered wealthy, earning about $10,000 a year exporting his vegetables to Israel, his household of 10 struggles to get by on $7 per day.

Like many other Palestinians, Shamalakh appears more concerned with rebuilding his life than debates over negotiations versus armed resistance. He is planning to plant cucumbers, eggplant and hot peppers on his farmland as soon as the Israelis leave Gaza.

"They'll grow quickly," he said.

Hamas members are more impatient, bristling at Abbas' suggestion that the evacuation from Gaza is somehow a test that the Palestinian people must pass before they can demand the return of the West Bank.

"They cannot put correct or false that we are civilized and law abiding. We believe Gaza is Palestinian land, and it should not be under examination," Hamad says.

Abbas has a good chance of winning back Palestinian support if he is able to quickly improve the lives of Palestinians after the withdrawal by providing them freedom to travel within and outside Gaza, creating jobs, and attracting outside investment.

"If the Palestinian Authority does not present disengagement as part of its diplomatic activity, it will not be able to own disengagement. Hamas will own disengagement," says Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Much of Gaza's future remains in Israel's hands, which retains control of all Gaza's entry points and airspace. Talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have failed to produce agreements on issues such as the reopening of Gaza's airport, future control of border crossings and customs, and Gazans' access to outside markets.

At Ansar military camp, much of which remains in ruins from the past five years of violence, cadets lack the weapons the authority would need to quell any violence during Israel's withdrawal. Israel has yet to decide whether it will allow them to receive new firearms.

For now, the authority is doing its best to stoke Palestinian national pride, encouraging people to forget their differences and celebrate the achievement of Gaza's return.

At the Fatah Youth Movement's headquarters here, young men are busy designing posters, ordering T-shirts and bluejeans, and organizing entertainment for the celebrations beginning this week. They are planning a seaside festival tomorrow.

The main celebrations, however, will wait until the day the settlements are handed over to the Palestinians. The authority has hired 90 buses to take curious Palestinians, long barred from the settlements by machine-gun towers and barbed wire, on a tour of land they fought to call their own.

Not all Palestinians are pleased to see money being poured into festivities when Gaza remains desperately poor and lacks basic services.

"What's more important than the celebrations is that we have security and stability," said Yousef Zada, 60, an appliance store owner in Gaza City. "Instead of spending $1.7 million on a party, maybe we should do something to improve our water."

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