It's All About the Exodus From Gaza'

Palestinians have only one topic on their mind these days: Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip.

GAZA - "No one will cry here over the departure of the Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, but..." This is the sentence that sums up prevailing opinion in Gaza. The "but" holds within it a basic suspicion, without exception, of the motives of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and suspicions over his hidden plans behind what he stated explicitly.

"The departure of the Jewish settlers (and not all of them, according to Israeli reports) from Gaza should be seen in the framework of Ariel Sharon's consistent, old master plan," says Jamal Zakout, an active participant in the Geneva Accord. He says this in the same breath with a statement that no one will mourn if "the 5,000 Israeli settlers who have for many long years been dictating an intolerable life for one-and-a-quarter million people will at long last leave our lands."

In Zakout's opinion, Sharon's master plan is aimed at wiping out any centralized Palestinian leadership: "That is, to wipe out the Palestinian national plan for independence and sovereignty, a plan that is based on a clear political stance for resolving the conflict. Sharon is not interested in a Palestinian leadership that has a logical plan for peace with Israel and that is able to advance and to fulfill this plan."

Although Zakout belongs to a tiny political organization - FIDA, the Palestinian Democratic Union, a leftist organization that at the beginning of the 1990s broke away from the Democratic Front, with its leader Yasser Abed Rabbo, and has been a partner in the Palestinian Authority since its establishment - when it comes to the renewed talk in Israel about leaving Gaza, he expresses aptly the opinion of many Palestinians, both in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank.

The suspicions over Sharon's intentions are not preventing people from discussing his declaration at every opportunity. As in Israel, Gazans are asking themselves to what extent the plan is connected to the police investigation of the funds the Sharon family received from tycoons. In any case, Zakout says, "Sharon has already succeeded. Instead of discussing the open scandals about his corrupt behavior, he has succeeded in twisting the headlines so that they will talk about the evacuation from Gaza and then about the referendum, yes or no." Zakout says Sharon has also succeeded "in confusing world public opinion: First of all, he is manipulating it in the publication of his plan, so that the isolation fence and the segregation that he is building in the West Bank will be forgotten. It is clear that Sharon is interested in strengthening his image on the eve of the deliberations at the International Court of Justice in The Hague on the matter of the fence. And sure enough, Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, is already talking to him and finding positive things in his plan."

People in Gaza found it hard to remember whether the Palestinian Authority has responded with an official position of its own: Someone thinks that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat said the plan runs counter to the road map, another swears that he heard Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian prime minister, welcoming it on one occasion and expressing suspicion on another. In any case, in the Gaza Strip, people prefer to follow the details of Sharon's plan as they are revealed hour after hour in the Israeli media, and prefer to know what Israelis are saying about the plan.

Two details that were reported a short time after Sharon's basic statement about removing Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip evoke suspicion over the prime minister's plans: the transfer of the settlers from Gaza to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and leaving in tact three tiny settlements in place in the northern Gaza Strip, where the population is dense and desperate for every bit of available land. "Sharon intends to set up a ghetto in the Gaza Strip, and containers in the West Bank: the Ramallah container, the Hebron container, the Nablus container and so on," Zakout says with conviction. The great danger, Zakout fears, is that hidden behind publication of the plan is American agreement. That is, U.S. President George W. Bush's administration has already given, or will give, a green light to the plan's implementation.

"An Israeli exit from the settlements in the Gaza Strip is a strengthening of Sharon's colonialist settlement project, in a new way," Zakout says. "Perhaps there is an indirect admission here of the basic failure of the Israeli settlement plan in the Strip, but then Sharon will say that now the Palestinians do have a state, in Gaza. The process of expanding the settlements is proceeding energetically in the West Bank. Together with the separation fence to the west and the separation fence to the east that will cut the Jordan Valley off from the rest of the West Bank - he will annex about half of the Palestinian lands in the West Bank to Israel and prove to the world that there is no Palestinian leadership with which it is possible to speak. And the truth is that there is not, and there will not be any Palestinian leadership that will be partner to Sharon's plan."

On this point, there are those who suspect that Zakout is mistaken. The vagueness of Sharon's plan is fertile ground for inter-Palestinian suspicion, especially since this a particularly violent period (though not the first) in the intra-Fatah power struggle. The conflicts within Fatah are accompanied by mutual recriminations of "treachery" among all sides. For example, there are those who say that the followers of Mohammed Dahlan broke into Palestinian Police headquarters headed by Razi Jabali because the latter "cursed Dahlan;" that is, he declared that Dahlan was partner to all kinds of American-Israeli plots. In the shooting battle that developed at the police station, one young policeman was killed and others were injured.

According to people in Gaza, Dahlan, who is accepted by the Americans, was brought into discussions with them about bringing an international protective force into the region. There are those who link this with the rumor that U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have already given their blessing to Sharon's "exodus from Gaza" plan. And they still remember Sharon's past plans to anoint the village federations or to create a pro-Israeli regime in Lebanon. And they also remember the Oslo era, when senior Palestinians devoted their attention to their personal enrichment.

All of these facts and rumors come together in a suspicion-assumption that Sharon will look for, and find, local Palestinian barons, each of whom will control one of the enclaves that his plan will create, just so that their personal economic projects can flourish.

Zakout does not share these suspicions, if only because he is convinced that the Palestinian public in its entirety will oppose the Sharon plan. Military activists in the various organizations are already boasting that the planned "exodus from Gaza" is the direct result of the unceasing pressure they are applying to the Israel Defense Forces, and through them on Israeli society.

"Pulling out of Gaza alone, and not in the framework of withdrawal from all of the territories that were occupied in 1967, will not bring about an end to the conflict," Zakout says. "The Israelis must not deceive themselves and let Sharon lead them astray. On the contrary, this will only make Palestinian society more extreme and reinforce extremist political ideas that will bring the Palestinian political discourse and the two peoples back to the squares of the past," he says.

"In the end, Sharon's plan for a partial withdrawal in order to thwart Palestinian independence will be dangerous to the people in Israel. Israel will move from the stage of a colonialist nation to colonialist-apartheid nation. Peace with the Palestinian people will enable Israel to be welcomed in the region. The continuation of the conflict - that is, thwarting the chances in the short term for an independent state - will endanger Israel's existence in the medium and long terms."