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Farewells and Homecomings

2 minute read
Matt Rees/Elei Sinai, Gaza Strip

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Israel’s 21 Gaza settlements proceeded far more smoothly than many security assessments had anticipated. Despite scenes of defiance and anguish as 43,000 soldiers and police began to clear the 8,700 settlers and their supporters from the areas, there was little violence and few serious injuries. As a result, it is Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, who now faces the biggest political risk.

With the settlers carted off to hotels all over Israel or to temporary homes built by the government on sand dunes near the town of Ashkelon, Israel will first salvage metal and other materials before destroying the settlements’ houses. Much of the rubble will be used to build breakwaters for a new Palestinian port south of Gaza City. Even before the land is cleared, the question is, Who gets the spoils?

The Islamists of Hamas, who oppose Abbas, claim it was their long war in Gaza that pushed out the Israelis, and want payback in the form of a big chunk of the 25 square miles of settlement land that will come under Palestinian control when the last Israeli soldiers leave (they’re scheduled to depart in six weeks). Hamas wants to build low-income housing on the land to bolster popular support in advance of parliamentary elections set for January. Its leaders are casting Hamas as a national, rather than a purely Islamic, party that can beat Abbas’ corrupt and unpopular Fatah party at the polls. If Abbas doesn’t give Hamas some land–and his aides say the settlement territory will indeed be held by the government–Hamas says it will take what it wants by force.

The group’s military chiefs are also threatening to strike against Israel to drive it out of the West Bank the way they claim they pushed it out of Gaza. Abbas’ security brass isn’t obeying his orders, making it hard for him to face down the Islamists and ensuring that he’ll fall short of Sharon’s demand for a complete end to violence. If Hamas gets a free hand in Gaza and its homemade rockets begin to land inside Israel, Sharon could also be in trouble–he faces party primaries in the spring and an election next fall. For both leaders, the withdrawal from Gaza is only a beginning.

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