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THE PERILS OF POST-PULLOUT GAZA
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
September 14, 2005

September 14, 2005 -- WHEN Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his intention to pull Israel's forces out of Gaza a year ago, the conventional wisdom was that the move would provoke a war between Jewish settlers and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), while the Likud-led coalition disintegrates under the weight of its contradictions.

With the Sharon plan for Gaza now completed, it is clear that conventional wisdom was, as is often the case, wide of the mark. But is the Gaza exercise a success, as Sharon's admirers claim? No one knows for certain.

On balance, there is little room for optimism.

Gaza was an awkward piece in a jigsaw shaped over the past four decades and thus had a clear status. Now, however, it becomes a floating piece in a jigsaw that does not exist even in imagination.

From the moment that Gaza was seized by Israel in June 1967 until last Monday when the last settlements were handed over to the Palestinian Authority, its status was one of "occupied territory," which has a clear definition in international law. Now, however, it becomes a "semi-occupied" territory, a status that does not exist in international law.

Contrary to hyperbolic claims by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Gaza is not liberated territory — all its points of contact with the outside world, including the West Bank, are still under Israeli control. Israel also retains effective control over a good chunk of Gaza's income both from customs' dues and foreign donations, as well as its trade.

Some have even described the new Gaza as a sort of "Bantustan," recalling the all-black statelets created in South Africa by the apartheid regime.

But the comparison is misleading.

Gaza is not an autonomous entity and cannot go its own way. Unlike the Bantustans whose governments were selected from within them, Gaza is put under the control of the Palestinian Authority — which is, when all is said and done, a mainly West Bank concoction with little popular support in Gaza. This recalls the situation of Sudan in the colonial era, when it was under Egyptian administration while Egypt itself was under British protection.

There are other major differences between Gaza and the "Bantustans."

The all-black statelets created by Pretoria were invariably free of armed groups and thus, while unable to pose a military threat to the regime, were not exposed to internal armed feuds. Gaza, however, is awash with armed groups with all sorts of weapons.

The most conservative estimates put the number of mini-armies in Gaza at 22. To these must be added the Palestinian Authority's security force and police, which also operate as rival factions. For a total population of perhaps 1.2 million, some 30 percent of all Palestinians in the "disputed territories," Gaza is believed to have over 100,000 armed men. It is also the single biggest producer of "volunteers for suicide-martyrdom" in the world. And yet Gaza accounts for only 1 percent of the Palestinian "disputed territories."

The world's most densely populated piece of land, Gaza also suffers from unemployment rates not seen anywhere else. The territory's largest employers are, in fact, the 22 armed groups mentioned above plus the political, social, educational and health networks operated by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and smaller militants groups linked with the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah movement.

A foretaste of what may be awaiting Gaza came just a week before the completion of the Israeli withdrawal, when Gen. Moussa Arafat was executed in front of his home there.

The general, who was security adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, was taken out of his bedroom and shot in the street while still in his pyjamas. Twenty-three bullets were fired into his body, one each for the 23 members of the Salaheddin Brigade whom he had supposedly tortured to death during his tenure as the virtual military ruler of Gaza under Yasser Arafat.

This was no ordinary assassination but a full-scale military operation carried out by over 100 masked men using 20 vehicles, including armoured cars, and rocket-launchers.

And it is likely that the Palestinian Authority's security either knew about the operation or ignored it when it happened. Gen. Arafat's home is just one street from President Abbas's heavily guarded official residence and only 500 meters from the headquarters of the PA's Preventive Security Forces.

The operation, which took an hour, ended with the abduction of Manhal Arafat, a son of the murdered general and himself a colonel in the security forces. It was only after the raiders had cleared the scene that the first Palestinian Authority policemen appeared.

Will Gaza become a black hole sucking the West Bank, and maybe Israel itself, into the unknown?

Again, no one knows for sure.

The best-case scenario is that Mahmoud Abbas secures a deal with Hamas and Islamic Jihad to allow the general elections, planned for next January, to take place. Hamas and Islamic Jihad may end up winning up to 40 percent of the seats in the future Palestinian parliament. That, in turn, may persuade them to switch to a political strategy.

An unofficial grand coalition between Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinians' principal secular movement, would isolate the most radical groups, including those financed by Iran, thus offering enough security to allow the economic revival of Gaza to start.

Plenty of money has been pledged, including $2 billion from the United States and the European Union. Many wealthy Palestinians are also waiting in the wing to invest in Gaza. There is talk of turning Gaza into a "tiger economy," and a showcase for a future Palestinian state.

The worst-case scenario is a Palestinian civil war fought on various fronts and at multiple levels. That could make Gaza a magnet for Islamist jihadists, who appear determined to create "a crescent of fire" from Iraq to Egypt, passing by Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan.

The current euphoria about the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is misplaced and dangerous. This is not the end of anybody's troubles by a long chalk.

Iranian author Amir Taheri, based in Europe, is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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