It's ours again
With all the settlers removed, Gazans are wiping their eyes, in disbelief and emotion, reports Erica Silverman
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A Palestinian security officer stands on guard during a celebration for the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza (left); a worker from the Israeli occupation forces removes Israel's flag from a house about to be destroyed by a bulldozer (right)
Palestinian families gathered on rooftops to witness militant Jewish settlers being hosed with water cannon, throwing paint, gasoline and even acid on Israeli border police, waving giant orange flags, and ultimately forcibly removed, kicking and screaming, from the roof of a synagogue in Kfar Darom settlement in the Gaza Strip.
Israel has evacuated all 21 settlements in Gaza and will continue to evacuate four in the northern West Bank over the coming week.
Inside Kfar Darom settlement are opulent homes and swimming pools just a few hundred metres away from Deir Al-Balah refugee camp where families of 10 are often crammed into one or two poorly ventilated rooms, with inadequate sanitation and where child malnutrition is endemic.
An estimated 1.4 million Palestinians, half of which are refugees, live in Gaza's 365 square kilometre area, making it one of the most densely populated places on earth. Israel, until this week, controlled over 30 per cent of the land in Gaza, housing only 8,000 settlers.
Nawaf Bashir, a 51-year-old farmer and father of 13, lives adjacent to Kfar Darom in the town of Amazra. Since 2000, Israeli forces seized 14 square kilometres of his land, bulldozed it, uprooted fields of olive trees and figs, levelled eight greenhouses worth $8,476 each, and eventually cordoned it off with barbed wire. He has not set foot on his land since.
"The settlers have exploited the media during the evacuation to portray themselves as righteous victims, when in fact they confiscated and occupied our land," asserted Nawaf's son Khalid, a 25-year-old working on his Masters degree in Sharia law. Israeli soldiers shot dead one of Khalid's colleagues from university last year at a nearby checkpoint.
A few houses down from Nawaf lives his relative Khalel Bashir. Israeli soldiers occupied the top two floors of his house three years ago and have remained there ever since. Soldiers warned the family to stockpile food; for two weeks now he and his family have been trapped in their home and will remain so until the withdrawal comes to a close.
Most critical at this time is that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has ensured -- thus far -- that withdrawal is peaceful. Factions have adhered to the ceasefire despite the killing of eight Palestinians by Israeli anti- withdrawal protesters. Despite Israel's forecast of internal chaos, the PA has seized the opportunity to launch a national unity campaign, encouraging democratic participation and coordination among all factions, emphasising the need for public order, the rule of law and the efficacy of the PA.
Last week PA Civil Affairs Minister Mohamed Dahlan was firm in his decision to remove two Palestinian homes that had been built illegally on settlement land, setting an early example of the PA's determination to hold Gaza.
President Mahmoud Abbas and PA officials have sent the message that the withdrawal is a victory for all Palestinians and every faction must share in rebuilding Gazan society. He has announced that legislative elections will officially be held in January 2006, and has invited all parties and factions to participate. He ratified and signed the amendment of local election laws making them fully proportional. Elections will take place next month in more than 100 localities and again in December, and a proposed political party law is soon to be approved.
As for the factions themselves, an official "withdrawal committee" was formed this week, comprised of 10 members from the top leadership of seven factions, including Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to ensure participation and coordination between all factions in maintaining security, appropriating the land, managing investment projects, and acting as a check on the PA given their history of corruption. President Abbas has agreed to work with the committee, while clearly asserting the final authority of the PA over it.
Abbas spoke at a conference this week for the Palestinian youth parliament attended by Fatah, Hamas, and Jihad, which aimed to develop an awareness of Palestinian national identity and the principles of mass participation. "Our Intifada is beginning anew, our next battle is to protect our liberated land and to achieve a democratic and free society," declared Abbas while addressing the gathering.
The question remains as to what type of political establishment will emerge after the withdrawal. A power struggle between factions -- particularly Hamas and Fatah -- could easily reverse the rhetoric of cooperation and national unity. Today there is nothing to quarrel about because everything is new and Palestinians remain far from the moment when ballots will be cast, but tomorrow?
Will Fatah or the PA accept the oversight of opposition groups? Will Hamas accept to play second fiddle, or will it use its highly disciplined army to take the lead? Predictions of coming violence were made after Arafat's death, and yet a successful presidential election was held just two months later, ushering in a new era in Palestinian politics.
The withdrawal has created a sense of victory and optimism amongst Gazans, many of whom, similar to Israelis, did not believe it would actually happen. Energies have shifted, and instead of focussing on attacking Israel, factions are focussing on internal development (as well and seemingly endless victory celebrations).
Issues on the table include land being returned to owners, the desire of many to visit this land, job creation and even future private investment -- a great shift in the socio-political dialogue from just six months ago. Gazan families muse over the possibility of visiting relatives via a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza while West Bankers long to see the beaches of Gaza.
Palestinians feel they are moving closer to freedom. They are following President Abbas's reforms. Hamas is expressing its sense of responsibility and commitment to abide by the law, while Abbas has declared that newly return land will never be corrupted or misused.
When asked if there was anything he would miss now that the settlers were gone, Nawaf responded, "I will not miss the shooting, the horror, the death. I will forget, gradually."