Israeli Army Prepares To Exit Gaza

But pullout date remains uncertain

THE forlorn rubber plant is all that is left in Lt. Nadav Nitzan's outer office, except for the tangle of naked wires poking out of a bare wall.

Lieutenant Nitzan, logistics officer at the Israeli Army's Khan Yunis district headquarters, is about ready to leave. Already he has stripped his room down to one chair, a field radio, and a telephone.

``Ninety-nine percent of our staff was moved out yesterday,'' he said April 5. ``A few little things still have to go. We will be leaving just the walls and the doors and the lights.''

``All our new bases are ready,'' explained Maj. Udi Cohen, the senior Israeli officer in the Gaza Strip's central refugee camps. ``We just have to get the order, and in a short time, we could move to our new area.''

It is still unclear just when the Israeli Army will finally withdraw from Khan Yunis and other populated areas of the Gaza Strip. Under Israel's agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization, the pullout should be completed by April 13, but that deadline is looking hard to meet as negotiations drag on in Cairo.

In Gaza, though, the Army is moving apace to pull its troops back into new bases near Jewish settlements in the Gush Katif region, far from Palestinian towns and refugee camps.

Most of the soldiers are only too happy to be moving out. ``Brilliant'' was all reserve soldier Amotz Tal could find to say of his new base in Gush Katif, a former settlement nestled in sand dunes overlooking the Mediterranean, as a sea breeze rustled the eucalyptus and yellow mimosa trees planted around the basketball court.

Back in Gaza City, top Palestinian police officials were being shown around an Israeli police barracks overlooking some wasteland by the beach where goats grazed among vehicle hulks.

``I don't know when we will be taking it over,'' said Soufian Abu Zeida, head of the PLO liaison team with the Israelis in Gaza. ``We just came to see the place.''

Gen. Doron Almog, commander of Israeli forces in Gaza, was no clearer when the hand over would happen. ``It depends on them [the Palestinians], on their convenience, and their schedule,'' he said.

Up the road, at the newly painted former social club that will soon serve as the Palestinian police headquarters, Maj. Mansour Rayis, another senior Palestinian police officer, was also uncertain just when he and his men would take control.

``It depends on the negotiations'' in Cairo between PLO and Israeli officials, Major Rayis said, referring to tying up loose ends of the agreement giving limited self-rule to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho.

But already things are changing in Gaza. ``Since last week, we have not been patrolling the refugee camps,'' Major Cohen said. ``We are just securing the main roads,'' in a foretaste of the Army's role under autonomy.

``We are lucky and happy'' with the new work, Cohen added. ``It is not a lovely thing to fight with the children'' who have been the foot soldiers of the intifadah (uprising) against Israeli occupation.

But the Israeli troops are cautious as they leave for the safer haven of their new Gush Katif headquarters. ``I am just telling my men every time they go out to be careful,'' says Lt. Uzi Maor. ``This is a very delicate time for us, and there will be a few tries to get back at us as we are getting out.''

Israeli and PLO officials are equally anxious to avoid any vacuum during the hand over period, which is not as clean cut as had been planned, as both sides rush to meet the April 13 deadline by implementing each bit of their agreement as it is reached in Cairo. About 9,000 Palestinian policemen are due to deploy in Gaza and Jericho under autonomy, and the first eight were due to arrive April 6.

``Our first challenge is security,'' said Freih Abu Midein, former head of the Gaza Bar Association. ``This is the first time we have authority in our hands: If we succeed here, we can move easily to [autonomy in] the West Bank, but if we fail....''

Jewish settlers in Gaza are also clearly concerned about their security. Outside Netzarim, where 28 families live isolated from other settlements, volunteers were putting up a second perimeter fence of barbed wire on April 5 to keep Palestinians out.

At the former Khan Yunis army base, where a flatbed truck stands in the front courtyard and the sound of furniture being dragged across the floor echoes from open windows, even the kitchen has gone, and the few rear-guard soldiers doing the final cleanup are living on battle rations.

On April 7, after giving the place a coat of paint, the soldiers will be gone.

Gazans will be only too happy to see their backs. ``Of course, with our people here [as policemen], we will be more relaxed,'' said Mufid al-Hissi, a cleaner. ``The sons of our people will have more mercy.''

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