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The renewed mortar and Qassam fire from Gaza into Israeli settlements, reports yesterday said, "have raised questions" in the Israel Defense Forces about the usefulness of the attempts to coordinate the disengagement with the Palestinian security forces. Attorney Dov Weissglas, the prime minister's advisor, who has already left for Washington ahead of President Bush's meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, will no doubt exploit these incidents "to raise questions" about Abu Mazen's ability and even his desire to protect Israeli citizens. Bush will reprimand the Palestinians, Abu Mazen will promise to hasten the reforms in the security apparatus, the Hamas will respond with fire, Israel will complain to the Americans that Abu Mazen isn't lifting a finger to impose order in the Strip - and the cycle will continue.

Presumably, the "questions" about the ability/willingness of the PA to serve as a buffer between Israel and Hamas will be intensified if the shooting continues after the disengagement. After all, according to the disengagement plan, after completion of the pullout, "the argument that Gaza is occupied territory will become baseless." In other words, a rocket fired from Gaza at Sderot on the morning after the disengagement will not be accorded the same "status" as a rocket fired from an occupied area. It will be considered an act of aggression initiated by a foreign country against a neighbor, which will have the right to take whatever military steps it sees fit to protect its citizenry.

The plan also says that "the act of disengagement will strip the validity from the arguments against Israel concerning its responsibilities to the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip." In other words, if the residents of the Strip are starving or dying of the plague, Israel will be able to direct complaints about this to Egypt or Finland, right? Definitely not.

The disengagement plan actually pulls the rug out from under the Israeli argument that the withdrawal means an end to the occupation in the region. It says that "Israel will deploy in the border area along the Philadelphi corridor" that divides the Gaza Strip from Egypt, and that "if and when the conditions are suitable for evacuation from that area, Israel will be ready to examine the possibility of establishing a naval port and an airport in the Gaza Strip." There is no need to say who will decide if and when "conditions are suitable" to enable the Palestinians to take control over the gates of Gaza that lead to the outside world. It is difficult to think of a more powerful symbol of occupation than a foreign country's control over the border passages of its neighbor, whether via land, sea or air.

If the opposite of occupation is liberation and sovereignty, the independent Palestinian entity that will arise in the Gaza Strip should be sovereign to invite all the refugees to come through its gates, fulfilling their right of return. The international community will also not recognize the "end of the occupation" in an area in which a foreign country decides who can enter and who can not. However, independence has a price and the Palestinians are not eager to pay it. Sharon has announced that those who don't want Israeli soldiers in the Philadelphi corridor and want to independently operate the airport at Dahaniyeh, will also have to give up the Israeli customs agreements, meaning an end to the customs "envelope" that encompasses Israel and the territories. The Palestinians fear that a different customs regime in Gaza will hurt their already damaged economy - and worse, that the separation between the two parts of Palestine will help Sharon actualize his plan to perpetuate the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

It is difficult to blame the Palestinians of paranoia. Quite a few Israelis really do believe that "Gaza first" is "Gaza last." But those who have longed for independence for years cannot give it up when it is laid at their doorstep because of a dubious bowl of lentils. For many years, Gaza got along without an "economic envelope," and as for the fears that the economic separation will turn into political separation - that will only happen if and when the independent Palestinian government turns the Gaza Strip into a terror state.

Jeffrey Aaronson, of the American Foundation for Peace in the Middle East, has been investigating ramifications of the disengagement on behalf of a Canadian think tank affiliated with the Canadian foreign ministry, and states: "Without sovereignty in Gaza, there is no chance for security reforms, and without the reforms, another round of violence is guaranteed, and another round distances the Palestinians from independence. Who knows when they will have another chance?"