Palestinian Authority says it is kept in the dark about the details of the Gaza withdrawal, reports Khaled Amayreh
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In the face of the brute strength of Israeli soldiers, Palestinians demonstrate for the release of their jailed compatriots
Recent meetings between Palestinian officials and their Israeli counterparts, at various levels, have so far utterly failed to make any progress regarding coordinated handling of Israel's proposed disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Israel, the Palestinians complain, is adamantly clinging to its unilateral approach as if the Palestinian side didn't exist.
On Sunday, Palestinian Authority (PA) Interior Minister Nasser Youssef and Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz met for more than two hours in West Jerusalem for the purpose of working out a "smooth and orderly disengagement". The meeting, however, produced no concrete results, Mofaz insisting on evoking the issue of "terror" and ignoring each and every Palestinian demand.
Likewise a number of high-profile "mediators", such as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Chief Coordinator of EU Foreign Policy Javier Solana, have failed to extract from Israel a commitment to coordinate the withdrawal with the Palestinians. This situation, says one Palestinian official, is deepening Palestinian apprehension and distrust vis-à- vis the true intentions of the Israeli government.
"We don't know what Israel is up to. We have held numerous meetings at senior and junior levels with Israeli officials, but to no avail," Majdi Al-Khaled, a senior PA Foreign Ministry official, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Earlier, Gaza strongman, Mohamed Dahlan, who is overseeing preparations for the administration of the Strip after Israel's withdrawal, accused Israel of planning to turn Gaza into a big jail. "We are not sure as of now if Israel will completely end its occupation and control of the Gaza Strip. Israel is adamantly refusing to give us information surrounding the details of the withdrawal. We are kept in the dark," he said.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas communicated this frustration to Condoleezza Rice during her brief visit to Ramallah on Saturday, 23 July. However, Rice, the purpose of whose visit to the region was first and foremost to encourage Israel to actually carry out the withdrawal, ignored Palestinian complaints and grievances in this regard.
Rice did say during a joint press conference with Abbas that Gaza shouldn't be turned into a prison and that Gazans should be able to travel and carry out trade activities freely after the withdrawal. Nonetheless, it is clear that Israel is not giving proper heed to Rice's remarks.
Israel, despite protracted contacts and talks with Egyptian officials, has so far refused to say if its occupation troops will withdraw completely from the so-called "Philadelphia passage" along the Rafah-Sinai border, where the main border crossing linking the Gaza Strip with the outside world is located. This week, however, Mofaz indicated that his troops may pull out of the corridor by October.
Israel has remained tightlipped over whether the Israeli army will continue to control Gazan territorial waters, airspace and the flow of goods and services from and to the Strip.
The PA has warned repeatedly that the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would be meaningless if Israel retained control over Gazan border crossings, including Gaza's airport and seaport. These warnings have been completely ignored by Israel and given only scant attention by the international community whose main preoccupation is to support Israel ahead of an actual withdrawal.
Meanwhile, the PA is working intensively on preparations for the "handover". Abbas has already moved to Gaza where he plans to stay for several weeks to make sure that the PA administration of the Strip will be smooth, peaceful and successful. Abbas reportedly said he would see to it that the Strip would become an "exemplary model" of sovereign Palestinian government, later to be adopted in the West Bank.
The keyword in Abbas's remarks is "later". The Palestinian leader and the PA hope that the withdrawal from Gaza will be but the beginning of a process that would lead to the end of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the creation of a viable Palestinian state as envisaged in the roadmap peace plan. This hope seems more wishful thinking than a realistic expectation given Israel's unmitigated consolidation of the occupation and settlement expansion in the West Bank.
One thing that is clear is that the success or failure of the Gaza disengagement will ultimately depend on the next phase of the peace process, namely the implementation of the inherently vague and increasingly diluted roadmap. It is unlikely that whatever "Palestinian independence" there is going to be in Gaza will be unaffected by developments in the West Bank.
Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has never sought to conceal his intentions in this regard; that the Gaza disengagement (he never used the term withdrawal) is first and foremost a pathway to strengthening Israel's position in the West Bank. This, as Israeli commentator Dany Robenstein wrote in Haaretz on Tuesday will generate incessant tensions in government and society in the Gaza Strip.
"Gazans, and the entire Palestinian leadership, will not be able to sit quietly and build a model of a proper government in Gaza while tension runs high in the West Bank and Jerusalem, where an every day struggle is being waged, including terror attacks and violence," Robenstein wrote. Indeed, these remarks may prove an understatement of the post-withdrawal situation in Gaza.
Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups have indicated that the resistance against the Israeli occupation will continue even after the withdrawal from Gaza. "I would like to remind you that the conflict with Israel is not merely over Gaza. Jerusalem and the West Bank are the crux of the matter," said Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar.
The PA may well succeed in getting Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to refrain from attacking Israeli targets as long as there is genuine political movement towards ending the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. In the absence of such movement, and if the international community fails to exert meaningful pressure on Israel to carry out its roadmap obligations -- including its not standing in the way of the creation of a viable Palestinian state -- the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza may herald the beginning of a new ominous chapter in the region.
Some observers, in this regard, fear much more than a third Intifada. Violence, they wager, may well, if it erupts again, spill over to neighbouring countries. Without doubt certain terrorist groups feeding on the tragedy of Palestinian suffering, among other Arab causes, would welcome such a prospect in helping them recruit more desperate and frustrated young Muslims to their ranks. For both the PA and Israel, dis