Palestinians welcome pullout warily

Among Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians, militant factions jockey for post-pullout clout.

Palestinians across Gaza are absorbed in the drama being played out in the nearby Jewish enclaves as soldiers pry holdouts from the settlements. Glued to TV sets, they flip from Al Jazeera to Israeli TV.

In Beit Hanoun, in northern Gaza, young Madiha Abd al-Daim sat for six hours watching the first day of forced evacuations. "He's crying because he left his home," she says, pointing to a departing settler shown on the screen. "We are happy [because] we are getting our land back."

While the Israeli withdrawal brings Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians great hope of peace with Israel, it also brings fresh uncertainty. Gaza's revival depends on economic and political stability, and a cessation of attacks on Israel. Ensuring this success falls on the Palestinian Authority, which faces local militant factions and its own internal disputes.

"People are happy but they are fearful," says Samir Shakaliah, the owner of a Gaza City Internet cafe. "They ask what will be tomorrow."

But for now there's just celebration in Palestinian Gaza as Israel dismantles its 21 settlements there. In a very short time their land will be freed after 38 years of Israeli occupation.

Israeli forces continued to make swift progress Thursday in evacuating the settlements in Gaza. They faced resistance in the settlement of Kfar Darom, where several protesters were arrested. In Neve Dekelim, security forces began removing more than 1,000 protesters - largely teenagers there illegally - from the community's two main synagogues.

A step toward peace?

Like many older Palestinians, Madiha Abd al-Daim's uncle, Assad Al-Daim, hopes the withdrawal will be a step toward peace with the Israelis. "All the people in Gaza are waiting for this day," he says. "We hope the blood won't return ... and the peace will come."

Mr. Daim was a construction worker in Israeli cities until the last intifada broke out. Many years ago, his Israeli employers were guests in his Beit Hanoun home. "They used to come to our home for feasts," he says. "God willing, those days will return."

But echoing one of the many postwithdrawal worries of Gazans, Daim says the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is not complete. "We want control of our borders, our sea, and our skies."

Whose victory?

In Gaza City, the victory banners of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad crisscross the sandy streets. Each banner congratulates the "victory of the resistance fighters" for forcing out Israel. But their unwritten message is to say they are responsible for the pullout, and that they deserve part of the political pie when Israel leaves.

That sentiment was echoed less subtly throughout the week. Every day a different militant faction rallied or paraded here with their fighters in camouflage brandishing Kalashnikov and Kassam rockets.

On Tuesday, the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) marched more than 200 armed fighters through the streets of Gaza City to the parliament. Abu Abeer, their spokesman, said the PRC will not attack Israel after the withdrawal unless Israel attacks first. He added that the PRC has its demands.

"We have a right to become part of the decisionmaking process," says Abu Abeer.

The two messages are not unconnected. The groups have promised to put down their arms but they also want power and jobs from the Palestinian Authority (PA). To give all the players a voice in plans for the evacuated settlements, the PA has formed the Withdrawal Follow-Up Committee with representatives from all the different factions. "The purpose of the committee is to make plans on how to deal with the evacuated areas so that all the Palestinian people can benefit," says Tawfik Abu Khoussa, spokesman for Palestinian Ministry of Interior.

Jobs in the new Gaza

While talking will help, employment is crucial to Gaza's success.

Most Gazans once depended on work in Israel to feed their families. After the second intifada broke out in October 2000, Israel stopped giving Palestinian workers permission to enter. The result was devastating unemployment to an already poor region. Today, few Palestinians are allowed to work in Israel. There are plans to ban all Palestinian workers from Israel by the year 2008, say Israeli army officials.

Unemployment and anger helped fill the ranks of militant Palestinian factions, where they received a small salary (between $100 and $300) and a gun. Now those fighters may be jobless and the militant factions want to ensure the PA will provide them with jobs.

"I want to work as a tailor," says one tall fighter with two children after the PRC parade. " The PA will help me."

The PA hopes to attract foreign investments to help rebuild the economy. "We are going to do our best to secure jobs for our people," says the minister of labor, Dr. Hassan Abu Libda.

But the lack of control over borders may undercut economic revival."If there is no predictable transparent environment you won't get any investors, not to mention you won't be able to run a regular business," says Saad Khatib, trade policy adviser for Paltrade, a group aiding economic growth in the territories.

"If I want to get an investor from the Emirates to build a hotel in Gaza, and he can't get into Gaza because the Israelis control the border, he won't put in a penny," he says.

Shadi Amur, a nutritionist at the Palestinian Red Crescent Society cafeteria, is looking forward to the immediate freedom of being able to travel freely within Gaza. Where once Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlements blocked roads now the whole strip will be open 24 hours a day.

"The withdrawal is good," says Mr. Amur. "There will be freedom of movement everywhere all day long."

Ilene R. Prusher contributed to this report.

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