Israel begins pullout

RAFAH — The official start of the Israeli evacuation of settlements in Gaza was marked in Rafah with midnight prayers of thanks at mosques across this conflict scarred border city in the southern Strip.
And as another blisteringly hot day dawned, so, it seemed, did a growing realisation that a new reality was about to descend on Rafah after 38 years of occupation.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, threatened Palestinians with Israel’s harshest response ever should they attack once settlers have been evacuated.

In a televised address, the Israeli leader told Gaza’s Jewish settlers he shared their pain but also understood the plight of the Palestinians in the coastal strip.

“We cannot hold onto Gaza forever. More than a million Palestinians live there and double their number with each generation. They live in uniquely crowded conditions in refugee camps, in poverty and despair, in hotbeds of rising hatred with no hope on the horizon,” he said in the five-minute address.

“The world is waiting for the Palestinian response — a hand stretched out to peace or the fire of terror. To an outstretched hand we shall respond with an olive branch, but we shall fight fire with the harshest fire ever.”

Sitting in the shade of a pockmarked wall on a road in the Tal Al Sultan neighbourhood facing a small cluster of settlements that cuts Rafah off from the sea to the west, retired schoolteacher Younis Shihani, 70, could not help planning his own celebration. Shihani spent his UNRWA retirement money on a plot of land that he planted with olive and fig trees. His choice of location proved to be unfortunate.

“It’s there,” he said, pointing across a stretch of open land and sand dunes towards one of the settlements not 300 metres away. “Just south of Rafiah Yam [settlement]. I haven’t been able to go there in 10 months, but next week,” he turned to the men sitting next to him, “you are all invited to lunch.”

A captain in the Palestinian National Forces, 33-year-old Jihad Seedan also looked to the future. By a twist of fate, he and his company had been deployed on a stretch of land in the southern part of Rafah’s Yubna refugee camp, near the iron wall Israel has erected at the Gaza-Egypt border.

In 2004, during the Israeli invasion of Rafah, a whole swath of land here was cleared of houses by the Israeli army to create the be-rubbled space that now exists between Yubna and the wall. On the edge of this line of destruction, barely holding up on three walls and a few supporting pillars and with no windows or doors, is the house where Seedan used to live with his family. Seedan’s company were taking their breakfast in its shade.

“I’ve rebuilt before,” he said, “and I’ll rebuild again.” Next year, he vowed, indicating a patch of freshly planted earth where they were sitting, “we’ll be eating our own vegetables.”

Both Shihani and Seedan remained cautiously optimistic about the settlers leaving. Shihani, from his vantage point, said he had seen loaded cars and trucks at regular intervals leaving the settlement.

Seedan, while stressing that Israeli soldiers still occasionally shoot from the two watchtowers about 500 metres apart that overlook Yubna and also serve to demarcate his company’s area of responsibility, nevertheless felt safe enough to take his breakfast in full view of them.

“It’s much quieter now,” he said between mouthfuls.

Rafah Mayor Saeed Zuroub was much more guarded.

“We need open borders. We need contact with the outside world,” he said in his office, Monday, referring to the continuing dispute over control of the border crossing between Rafah and Egypt.

“The Israelis say they have security concerns. They are afraid of weapons coming in. But this cannot be fully controlled. Israel has always been in control of the border and that hasn’t stopped the weapons coming in.”

“What Israel must understand is that soldiers do not guarantee security. There are international laws that guarantee Palestinians their rights. The fulfilment of these rights will guarantee Israel its security.”

Not in any way interested in Israel’s security, Mohammad Abu Shamala, the commander of the Izzeddine Al Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, in southern Gaza, left little doubt as to what should happen next.

“The Israeli withdrawal will not change anything,” he said in his hideout in one of Rafah’s refugee camps where he agreed to meet The Jordan Times.

“Military action is the only way to get our rights from Israel. If political negotiations are fruitful, then OK. But our experience with Israel, especially after the long process of negotiations from which we got nothing and that reached a dead end, leads us to conclude that we have to depend on the military strategy.”

Nevertheless, Abu Shamala, while not conclusively affirming that a decision had been taken to end mortar and rocket attacks at Israeli targets during the withdrawal, acknowledged that Hamas is “not interested in creating any trouble or obstacles in the way of [the evacuation]. We want to rid Gaza of the occupation.”

He also absolutely rejected any notion of Hamas laying down its arms, as suggested in a recent speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who said there could be “only one authority, only one weapon.”

“We are not a second authority here and we do not want to take the place of the PA,” said Abu Shamala. “But we are a liberation movement — we fight for our people and we fight for Palestine — and because of this we will keep our weapons. We will not compromise on this point.”

He was keen to stress, however, that Hamas is not interested in any internal fighting, and Mayor Zuroub too played down the risk of internal clashes.

“We just want Israel out. Everything else we will deal with.”

Zuroub did predict a number of internal problems regarding the settlements, including the issue of land ownership, and complained that municipalities had only sketchily been informed by the Palestinain Authority about future plans for the settlements. But as for possible problems with regard to celebrations in the settlements, he laughed it off.

“It will be like a wedding. Some young guys will go and want to look at the women, and they will come to blows and afterwards they will all drink tea together.”

In Amman, meanwhile, His Majesty King Abdullah telephoned Abbas and told him the pullout was a “positive step” that should be a prelude to a withdrawal from the West Bank.

King Abdullah reiterated Jordan’s full support for the PA, calling on the factions to unite to realise Palestinian interests and aspirations.

Prime Minister Adnan Badran told Al Rai and The Jordan Times in an interview Sunday that the Gaza pullout should be the first step of the roadmap’s full implementation.

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