Gaza Strip withdrawal may become turning point


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.

Hamas and other militant groups will likely have their own celebrations, supporting their belief that the pullout is a victory for armed resistance and that they must fight again to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

According to recent polls, 72 percent of Palestinians agree that the disengagement plan is the result of armed struggle, although 77 percent support the current cease-fire.

The Palestinians remain suspicious of Israel's intentions. Sharon has given clear indications that the withdrawal from Gaza is a means to tighten Israel's grip on the West Bank settlements. Israel also continues to build a separation barrier - a series of fences and concrete walls dividing West Bank land from Israel.

Sharon announced the Gaza withdrawal plan more than a year ago, in the midst of suicide bombings and other attacks, and when the Palestinians were led by Yasser Arafat. It was seen as a means to trim Israel's exposure to a demoralizing and dangerous situation.

Much has changed since then. Arafat is dead. Abbas is considered a trustworthy partner. And it's not so clear what Sharon's intentions are. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking at a news conference last week, insisted that Israel did not have any plans to "trade off Gaza for the West Bank."

Most analysts believe that Gaza will remain mostly calm, at least until Palestinians hold parliamentary elections in January, when voters will decide who should lead them: Hamas, which supports armed resistance, or Abbas' Fatah party, which would like to continue with negotiations.

Even if it enjoys some stability, Gaza remains isolated and poor, "a giant prison," many Palestinians say, cut off by security fences and travel restrictions.

The World Bank is pressing Israel to allow Palestinians freedom of movement for people as well as trade goods, the conditions the Palestinian Authority needs if it is to create jobs and improve a dismal economy. As of these last hours before the start of the withdrawal, however, there are no agreements about the fate of Gaza's airport, a potential future seaport, border crossings and the means for Palestinians to travel between Gaza and the West Bank.

"I don't think that Gaza is going to kind of descend into complete chaos," says Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel. "The image I have in my mind is Arafat's funeral. At any point in time it seemed to be completely chaotic and nobody could figure out how the hell this burial was going to take place, and yet somehow Arafat was buried. It happened. That kind of organized chaos seems to be the kind of way in which the Palestinians tend to function absent a central authority."

If such "organized chaos" is enough to keep Gaza calm, even relatively peaceful, for a longer period of time, it would be a rare opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to move forward and restart a meaningful peace process.

"During the last four and a half years, Israel became convinced that Palestinians rejected the idea of the state of Israel, and Palestinians became convinced after experiencing collective punishment that Israelis saw them as subhuman and would never surrender control over them," said Dennis Ross, former U.S. envoy to the Middle East, speaking with reporters in Jerusalem last month.

But disengagement may create a new foundation for negotiations, Ross says.

If the settlers leave peacefully and the Palestinians maintain order in Gaza, the Israeli public may be open to the next step in the peace process: an Israeli withdrawal from at least part of the West Bank. Likewise, if the withdrawal leads to a new round of violence, if Gaza becomes a center for militant activity, the Israeli public would almost certainly reject any further concessions to the Palestinians.

"No political leader in Israel will be able to swing public opinion in favor of the withdrawal on the West Bank if the Gaza disengagement is perceived as a failure," says Hazan, the Hebrew University political scientist. "The West Bank negotiations are off the table for the next 10 years if Gaza is a terrorist state."

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