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Will Disengagement Turn Gaza Into A 'Big Jail'

Palestinians Fear Israeli Disengagement Will Turn Gaza Into A 'Big Jail'

By Yasser Abu Moailek

The visit of the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Israel and the Palestinian territories was not a courtesy call. US President George W. Bush sent Rice to the region at a critical time, as the countdown for the implementation of the Israeli disengagement plan draws near.

But while it seems that the American administration is demonstrating a growing interest in reviving the stalled peace process, Palestinians are still worried that the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank will turn become a substitute for the road map peace blueprint, thus forfeiting final status negotiations.

Israel plans to dismantle all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four out of 120 settlements in the West Bank in mid-August - the announced time for the start of the disengagement.

Washington views the implementation of this plan as an important step toward resuming the peace process, which has staggered to an almost complete stop during the past four-and-a-half years of violence.

During her meetings with Palestinian and Israeli officials on June 18 and 19, Rice pushed toward reaching a defined mechanism of carrying out the Israeli pullout, but warned that time was running out and that mutual coordination between Israelis and Palestinians was vital to a smooth operation.

The Palestinian Al Quds newspaper said in its June 20 editorial that the question that has arisen after Rice's visit concerned the nature of the messages that she had given the Israelis and the Palestinians, indicating significant US interest in giving momentum to the peace process, and motivating efforts to implement the road map, by considering Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as a first step toward a final settlement.

Al Quds added that recent remarks by Rice went in that direction, as she focused on the necessity of coordination between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Israeli government with regards to evacuating settlements and making the arrangements for a smooth and easy pullout and handover of the evacuated areas to the Palestinians.

However, some political analysts have expressed disappointment at Rice's remarks.

Palestinian columnist Abdel Qader Hammad wrote in his June 20 editorial in Al Hayat Al Jadida that Rice "didn't bring any new developments, and didn't say anything other than what President [Mahmoud] Abbas had already heard during his recent visit to the White House".

Indeed, Rice devoted a large part of her share of the joint press conference with Abbas in Ramallah to the coordination of the Israeli plan, considering mutual cooperation a crucial step that would affect the future of the entire political process.

After her meeting with Rice, Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said that "what we demand of the United States is to show political will and an ability to confront Israel, and to prove that it is capable of going ahead with its declared political agenda with regards to ending the [Israeli] occupation and establishing the Palestinian state".

"The issue is not what happens before or after the withdrawal, because I'm not convinced in principle of the withdrawal from Gaza Strip," Ashrawi declared.

"There are dozens of unanswered questions by the Israelis, including whether the withdrawal would be complete, whether Gaza would turn into one big jail, and whether Israel would maintain control of our air space and regional waters," she added.

According to the 1993 Oslo Accords, which gave rise to the interim PA, Israel maintains control of the borders of the Gaza Strip and its airspace.

Palestinians fear that they would be locked inside this narrow coastal strip of land and many have called for reopening Gaza's international airport and the safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank after Israel disengages.

Hani Habib, a columnist at Al Ayyam newspaper, commented that "having these issues unsolved and stuck means that Israel will turn Gaza into a big jail, and this in itself is considered a compromise to the unity of the 1967-occupied territories and the unity of the people.

"By limiting the center of the [Palestinian] Authority only to Gaza, thus defining it to be the Palestinian state, the cantons that would be created in the West Bank will become supplementary to that state," Habib continued.

Habib added that Israel viewed the negotiated solutions as effectively dead, and what it was trying to impose was a unilateral Israeli solution implemented over several stages and long periods of time.

"The question that is raised now is: under these circumstances, what might happen after the implementation of the disengagement plan? That is, of course, if it was implemented!"

Habib further argued that in the best case scenario, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would present another unilateral disengagement plan in the West Bank, but only after expanding the Jewish settlements there and joining the larger settlement blocs into Israel, coupled with the continuous construction of the separation barrier, which would effectively create new facts on the ground.

Sharon has said that the road map plan might not witness any progress unless the PA disarmed militant Palestinian factions and destroyed their infrastructures.

Palestinian officials, on the other hand, have declared that such a step would neither be possible nor acceptable, preferring to incorporate the militants into their security services, which have been weakened by five years of Israeli targeting and destruction.


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