Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 June 2004
Issue No. 694
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gaza in the balance

Israel's disengagement plan may never see the light of day. But its security repercussions are already being felt, at least in Egypt. Graham Usher reports from Jerusalem

Last Sunday the Israeli cabinet pulled off the impossible: it approved an "intention" to withdraw from 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank, while waiving a decision on their evacuation. That move will probably not come before March next year and will require another cabinet vote. "It's disengagement without withdrawal," said one Israeli commentator.

Still, Ariel Sharon cherished his victory. "Disengagement is on the way," he said, after the cabinet meeting. It is a move "that would contribute to [Israel's] security, political standing, economy and to the demographics of the Jewish people in the land of Israel".

He is probably right. In performing disengagement's rite of government passage, the Israeli leader has delivered on the promise made to George W Bush in April. In return he has American support for Israel's demand that, in any final peace agreement, the five main West Bank settlement blocs will be annexed and Palestinian refugees will have no right of return to their homes, lands and properties in Israel.

In agreeing to it Sharon's Likud Party (most of whose members and ministers were and are opposed to the plan) hopes to ward off the re-entry of the opposition Labour Party into a new National Unity government, and forestall the removal of several Likud ministers from their chairs. But it is a blocking manoeuvre that is already starting to crumble.

Last week, Sharon sacked two ministers from the ultra-nationalist National Union (NU) party for "disagreeing with the prime minister", in the words of NU leader Avigdor Lieberman. On Tuesday, a minister and deputy-minister from another coalition member, the National Religious Party (NRP), resigned to "unite and act against this government and against this terrible decision", said NRP leader and now former housing minister, Effi Eitam.

The NRP will apparently stay in the coalition, creating another impossibility where a party sits in a government that its leader is mobilising a "religious Zionist, ultra-orthodox and National Union" bloc to overthrow.

The resignations leave Sharon the head of a minority government, though one that is expected to reach the shore of parliament's summer recess in July through the "outside" support from Labour and/or a pair of independent parliament members. But few Israeli commentators believe disengagement can be implemented with the present Israeli government. That will require a new coalition or, perhaps, new elections.

Where disengagement is being implemented on the Palestinian side, though not with the Palestinians. That prerogative has been given to Israel's old adversary and new partner in Gaza, Egypt. On Monday, Israel's Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom met President Mubarak in Cairo to discuss modalities. "We're now very close to implement this understanding between Israel and Egypt," he said.

"This understanding" boils down to a common concern not to allow a disengaged Gaza to become a Hamas- land on their borders. Egypt has agreed to send 200 military experts to Gaza and the West Bank to shape the Palestinian Authority's (PA) dissolute and mutinous security outfits into some kind of police force. One hundred guards will also be moved up to seal Egypt's porous border with Gaza, seen by Israelis as an entry port for Palestinian arms. But it is not just about Israel's security. "Tunnels have two ends," said one Egyptian security official.

Mubarak has also asked Yasser Arafat -- again -- to consolidate the PA's 12 police and intelligence forces into three and place them under the command of an "empowered" prime minister or interior minister. The Palestinian leader has given a "positive response, in principle", though with a wink that it won't be carried out in practice. Control of security forces is one of the few cards Arafat has left in a diminishing deck. He is not going to trade it, not even cosmetically, for anything less than guaranteed freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank.

Arafat is not alone in this refusal, at least among his people. On Tuesday, the National and Islamic Forces -- a coalition of all the Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Arafat's Fatah movement -- issued a statement condemning the disengagement plan as a "deception and fraud whose goal is to imprison the Palestinian people in a giant jail in Gaza while controlling the sea, the air and land borders and simultaneously widening the occupation in the West Bank with settlements and the separation fence".

They were only slightly less scathing about Egypt. "All efforts by Arab brothers and friends to facilitate negotiations with the Israeli side must call for the end of attacks against the Palestinian people [and underline their] right to continue an armed struggle against the occupation, the settlements, the separation fence and in support of the right of return," it said.

Hamas, too, is quietly warning Egypt not to send its military experts anytime soon. The Islamists' current strategy is to escalate the armed resistance in Gaza so that Israel's disengagement is viewed as no less a flight than was its South Lebanon precursor. This may or may not hasten Israel's departure. But it is likely to forestall the entry of neighbourly minders. (see p. 2&3)

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