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April 20, 2005

Not so Fast Out of Gaza

by Jim Lobe

GAZA - Two dates in the Middle East that once seemed set in stone are now being challenged as Israel considers delaying its Gaza disengagement and Palestinians mull over postponing their elections.

Israel is considering at least a three-week delay in the implementation of its Gaza "disengagement plan," and Palestinians may have to postpone their elections due to legislative wrangling. Both are slated to take place mid-July.

Gaza has been under Israeli occupation, and an Israeli pullout would be an important landmark in the Palestinian quest for a homeland.

The possible delays show up the political difficulties that both Israeli Prime Minister Sharon and the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas are facing. After a brief honeymoon following the cease-fire declared in February, both face increased opposition in their own circles. This is also putting a strain on relations between the two sides.

The Israeli withdrawal seems set to take place anyway, and the possible change in dates is said to be only a tactical matter. The operation is expected to be controversial at home, possibly even violent, and the government was loath to have it coincide with the annual period of mourning for the destruction of a Jewish temple.

"We need to make an effort to ease their [settlers] suffering to get through the difficult crisis," Sharon said at a political meeting Monday.

Opposition leader Yosef Lapid of the secular Shinui party said he feared that if the pullout did not go ahead in July, it would "not take place at all."

Postponing the operation may just be a prudent step but it also shows the government's apprehension over the settlers' ability to mobilize Israeli society. A delay will create other problems that are also emotionally charged. August is uncomfortably close to the beginning of the school year in September, and nobody wants settler children to suffer because of a political process.

The wrangling over Palestinian elections seems to pose even more of a challenge to Mahmoud Abbas than the disengagement saga does to Ariel Sharon. The fundamentalist Hamas movement, the largest militant and opposition group, wants elections as scheduled on July 17. But Abbas' own Fatah movement is pushing hard for a delay because it fears defeat. Fatah controls the current Legislative Council.

Both in Gaza and in Ramallah, the Palestinian seat of government, the tensions are palpable. Support for Abbas is said to be crumbling fast because he is seen as incapable both of putting his own house in order and of making Israel live up to its commitments under the cease-fire, and improve the daily lives of Palestinians.

The one notable success of Abbas, the period of calm that the militant factions all agreed to vis-à-vis attacks on Israel, seems to be holding for now. But Hamas has threatened to drop out of the agreement if elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) do not go ahead as planned.

Abbas has reassured Hamas that this was not his intention. "We have no desire to delay these elections," he told reporters at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah.

Hamas will be participating in national Palestinian elections for the first time. The last and only time the PLC elections were held, in 1996, it boycotted the polls. Since then the second Intifada (militant Palestinian uprising) has dramatically increased the Islamists' popularity.

At the same time Fatah's grip on power has severely weakened because of the long string of allegations of corruption, because it is identified with the ineffective and corrupt Palestinian Authority, and because of the death of its main asset, Yasser Arafat.

The old guard among the Fatah leaders in particular are said to fear a defeat at the polls because this may then be used by a younger generation of Fatah politicians waiting in the wings to force them out in internal Fatah elections scheduled in August.

Nabil Shaath, longtime cabinet member and a representative of the old guard, denies this. "The question really has to do with the Israeli pullout of Gaza during that time, and our fear that the Israelis might make it difficult for people to do real election campaigns and have real freedom of movement," he told reporters.

In the Bene Suheila neighborhood of Khan Younis town in the Gaza Strip, the mood is decidedly pro-Hamas. Until recently this was known as "Fatah-land."

Hamas decided to participate in municipal elections at the beginning of this year, and Fatah was swept aside. "We changed Fatah-land into Islam-land," a Hamas voter boasted in the dusty market in Bene Suheila's main street.

Voters are clear why the change took place. "The Hamas candidates were trustworthy, not corrupt, they don't only look after their own friends and family members, and they are competent," said Muhammed Abu Arian, owner of a bicycle repair shop.

Fatah was also internally divided, with candidates running on independent tickets if they failed to be nominated by the Fatah branch in a district. And there has been a lot of acrimony between the different Fatah power brokers in Gaza.

Fatah leaders in Gaza seem incapable of addressing the crisis. One of them, who is also a leader of the militant al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in the Khan Younis area, continues to blame Israel for all the troubles of Fatah.

"We are the party of peace, but Israel blew up the peace and now they are not sticking to their commitments under the cease-fire, to release prisoners and to withdraw from Palestinian cities on the West Bank," he said. "And they keep expanding their settlements. We look weak to the people."

Hamas is aware that its militant image and the attacks it staged against Israel still play well with the population, which is weary after more than four years of violence, but also still angry.

"We will not become a political movement," Hamas spokesman Moshir al-Masri told IPS. "We will keep resisting Israel until all our demands are met."

At the same time, al-Masri did acknowledge that Hamas was trying to take part in the political process on the Palestinian side, even claiming they could win the elections. "We believe in democracy, and we think the voice of the people who support us should be heard."

Hamas is profiting from a focused message in relation both to religion and Israel, and from a disciplined cadre with a clean image.

Fatah's problems were highlighted earlier this month in Ramallah, when members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades that are linked to Fatah went on a shooting rampage. They hit Abbas' Muqata headquarters and fired into two restaurants.

The incident occurred after Abbas had started talking about some of the men handing in their weapons and moving out of the rooms they occupy in his compound.

In Ramallah, worried shop owners said the real issue was money, with the Brigades using their weapons to run extortion rings. They used to be paid earlier by Yasser Arafat, who was said to have exercised a measure of control over them. That now seems to be lost.

"Arafat's heritage," a Ramallah businessman called the Brigades. That seems to go for the whole of the crisis that Fatah finds itself in.

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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