A consensus is growing among Palestinians about the positive merits of a crystallising Egyptian involvement in effecting the proposed Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Khaled Amayreh reports from the West Bank
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Next to the town of A-Ram, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, a boy cycles along a long cement base that will support the eight-metre-high blocks to be used in the construction of the Israeli apartheid wall. The wall will disrupt the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians by separating them from their schools, workplaces and families
Palestinian political factions and resistance groups have been holding discussions over a host of issues pertaining to "post-occupation arrangements" in Gaza, including the presence of Egyptian security personnel for the purpose of training Palestinian security cadres.
Sources close to the talks spoke of a "good atmosphere and not a small amount of optimism". One Palestinian Authority (PA) official who took part in the discussion told Al-Ahram Weekly that erstwhile reservations voiced by some Hamas officials regarding Egypt's possible role in Gaza stemmed not from any ill-will toward Egypt but rather from "understandable and justified distrust of Israeli intentions".
Earlier, Hamas's Gaza leader Mahmoud Al-Zahhar warned that resistance against Israel would continue until and unless the "withdrawal is complete and comprehensive". He indicated that Hamas would play a positive role in the post-occupation governance of Gaza and see to it that its fighters join Palestinian national security forces.
Similar positive statements have been made by senior PA security officials, including PA security adviser Gebril Rajoub, who pointed out during a televised interview that "the ballot box will be the ultimate arbiter in Gaza".
Meanwhile, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei was scheduled to arrive in Cairo on Wednesday for talks with Egyptian leaders including President Mubarak and Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman. Suleiman reportedly will travel to the West Bank and possibly Gaza on 24 June to make sure that the "Palestinian house is in order". Palestinian sources said Qurei would seek to reach with the Egyptian leadership a concordant conception of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
Most particularly, the PA is demanding a set of guarantees, or at least understandings, that the Gaza withdrawal would be an integral part of the American- backed roadmap for peace between Israel and the Palestinians and in no way allow Israel to have a free hand in the West Bank. Moreover, the PA is insisting that the withdrawal be comprehensive and complete and lead to freeing the estimated 1.3 million Gazans from decades of Draconian Israeli restrictions on travel inside and outside the Strip.
PA Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath described the Egyptian role as "brotherly and very positive". He pointed out that all Palestinian groups and factions were unanimous in their appreciation of that role, the purpose of which he said was to help the Palestinians, and not anything else. He said Egypt was actually cementing Palestinian national unity and in no way siding with the PA or Fatah against the Islamic movements, such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, as was rumoured recently.
Shaath revealed that Egypt conditioned its involvement in effecting the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza on obtaining full acceptance of the Egyptian role from all Palestinian national and Islamic factions, including Hamas.
Nevertheless, the PA foreign minister recognised that what the Palestinians, the Egyptians and the Quartet, especially the European Union, want was one thing and what Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants was an entirely different matter. In Shaath's view, Sharon is trying to consolidate the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in return for withdrawal from Gaza, adding that the PA was mobilising regional and international efforts to pressure Israel to carry through with the roadmap as it is.
"We do know that Israel's goal is to annex the bulk of the West Bank in return for the withdrawal from Gaza. But everybody knows that the Palestinians, the Arabs and the international community won't accept this."
Palestinian misgivings about Sharon's intentions seem to be more than justified. Israel on Monday announced the confiscation of thousands of acres of Palestinian land in the northern and central West Bank for the purpose of expanding Jewish settlements. Israel press sources spoke of more than 150 square kilometres slated for seizure in the area extending from northern Nablus to Ramallah.
One of the areas hard-hit by the new land grab is the district of Salfit, located between Ramallah and Nablus. One local official told the Weekly that the expropriation of the land, coupled with the expected Israeli decision to extend the separation wall deep into the heartland of the West Bank, would effectively amount to a "death penalty" on the district, its people and its future.
"I could safely say that the confiscation would reduce dozens of villages in our area to de facto detention camps and kill the livelihood of tens of thousands of people," said Jamil Mahboba, deputy mayor of Salfit. He added, in an exasperated tone, that Israel was committing "slow motion genocide against us" and that "nobody seems to be doing anything about it".
Mahboba warned that the building of the separation wall east of the settlement of Ariel, located four kilometres from Salfit, would result in a "real catastrophe, in letter and spirit" for his town and its surrounding villages. "I can tell you it is ethnic cleansing, like what the Nazis were doing in Europe only decades ago. The world must do something about it before it is too late."
Palestinian analysts underlined these fears, arguing that Israel was practically withdrawing from Gaza in order to arrogate what remained of the West Bank. "We knew from its very inception that Sharon's disengagement plan had another code name, and that is the annexation of the West Bank," said Palestinian political analyst Hani Al-Masri. He quoted a recent Israeli press report according to which Sharon sought to assure an unnamed cabinet minister opposed to the Gaza plan that the pullout would enable Israel to neutralise once and for all UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and enjoy "50 years of safety, security and serenity".
For Palestinians what counts are Israeli intentions, not utterances. And in all cases, if actions are an expression of intention, the huge land grab in the West Bank, along with the truncation, ghettoising and dismemberment of Palestinian population centres, amply prove -- if proof is yet needed -- that the planned Gaza withdrawal is only meant to consolidate Israeli domination and occupation of Palestinian lands.