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Withdraw here, settle there.

With the sealing of the Occupied Territories from Israel during March, "disengagement" and "segregation" have suddenly entered the realm of practical politics. Mariam Shahin reports on Israel's slackening resolve to stay put in the Gaza Strip, while Andrew North assesses the Rabin's impenetrably ambiguous settlement policy on the West Bank.

AGAINST A BACKGROUND of spiralling violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, there has never been more talk of an Israeli "disengagement" from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It is Israelis, no longer just Arabs and Palestinians, who are beginning to question the nature and shape of the country's presence in the areas taken over in 1967.

Since the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem were sealed off from Israel proper (and each other) in March as a response to attacks on Israelis, the Rabin government has made it clear that segregation has now become a long-term goal. This raises complicated questions for the future status of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. If the practicality and implementation of disengagement is to be tested, it will be in the Gaza Strip, stronghold of the fundamentalist Hamas movement and a breeding ground for anti-Israeli violence ever since 1967.

While no one is speaking of the immediate Israeli departure from Gaza, a variety of possible scenarios are being drawn by political observers. The most depressing of these pits the PLO against Hamas and foresees a dismal rebirth for Gaza freed from Israeli occupation.

There appears to be a general consensus on why the Israelis would leave Gaza. The increased violence in the Occupied Territories which was sparked by Israel's expulsion of some 400 Palestinians in December shocked many Israelis. The "renewal of the intifada", as the Palestinians call it, apparently took the Israelis by surprise. A killing spree of Israeli servicemen, settlers and policemen has only given the calls for withdrawal a further impetus.

One of the Palestinian peace negotiators, Zakharia Agha, pointed out that "not so long ago many Israeli officials were saying that Gaza was an integral part of the land of Israel." A native of Gaza, he says that the very talk of withdrawal is a good sign. "Psychologically it is being introduced into the subconscious of the Israeli public that they may chose to withdraw and that in itself is already an accomplishment."

Israeli politicians are less committed to retaining control over the Gaza Strip, which houses almost a million Palestinians (over half of whom are refugees) than the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinians negotiators say that their Israeli counterparts have privately expressed a willingness to dismantle settlements in the Gaza Strip and "leave overnight". One adviser to the negotiating team said that the Palestinians now have little doubt that the Israelis will "withdraw fully from the Strip."

Israel's outspoken minister of environment and a member of the centre-left Meretz bloc, Yossi Sarid, has been among the most outspoken voices in the Rabin cabinet calling for a quick Israeli evacuation from Gaza. "Israel is not interested in governing Gaza and will hand Gaza over as quickly as possible," Sarid said recently. Such a withdrawal, however, should come in the framework of a "peace agreement, and not unilaterally."

Palestinian politicians agree with the Israelis on the issue of withdrawal in the framework of an all-encompassing agreement. Talk of withdrawal, say PLO officials, is "very premature." They argue that Israel will use a commitment to "withdraw totally" from Gaza to obtain other territorial concessions from the Palestinians. But PLO sources believe that in the final analysis there will be a total Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, including a dismantling of settlements.

"They will try to use their withdrawal from Gaza, which they badly want to do anyway, as a propaganda tool," says an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team. "In return for this withdrawal, they will try to obtain territorial concessions from the Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

A West Bank territorial settlement that would include the area in and around the cities of Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron is what the Israelis have in mind, believes one member of the PLO executive committee, speaking on conditions of anonymity to The Middle East from Tunis.

Even Hamas sees eye to eye with the Israelis and the PLO on the issue of withdrawal from Gaza - but for different reasons. "We believe that a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would be counter-productive to our interests," said a senior member of Hamas and the group's envoy to Jordan, Mohammed Nazzal.

"We want a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip to come about as part of a fully-fledged framework for Israeli departure from all the Occupied Territories." Unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would drain attention, energy and resources to the poverty-stricken Strip and deflect attention from the West Bank and Jerusalem, according to Nazzal, who is a spokesman for one of the few Palestinians groups which is not a member of the PLO.

"Some people might even think of announcing a state in Gaza because it would be the first liberated land of Palestine," he thinks. "We don't want this to happen, because then the Israelis and others would undoubtedly argue that Palestine exists in Gaza and make an international case to drop the issue of withdrawing from the West Bank and Jerusalem.

"Gaza will be vacated and be ruled by the Palestinians and the West Bank will be cantonised according to the Israelis," said the Tunis-based member of the PLO executive committee, referring to what many Arabs believe will be an Israeli fragmentation of the West Bank.

But Palestinian officials say that such a plan is a "maximalist" position of the Israelis which will "have to change" if there is to be peace. "Such a plan is not acceptable to us - there are rules and UN resolutions 242 and 338 certainly do not call for such a solution," says Taysir Aruri, another adviser to the negotiating team.

While the PLO is worried about what the West Bank will look like once the negotiations are finalised, Hamas is concentrating more on the Gaza aspect of the negotiations. Hamas is worried that the PLO will "send in a PLO-controlled Palestinian police force" to run the violence-ridden Gaza Strip. Hamas repeatedly called for the entry of "United Nations peace-keeping forces" into Gaza to oversee elections. "We would prefer the Gaza Strip to be handed over to the UN instead of a Palestinian police force, because then we would be assured of fair elections," says Nazzal.
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Title Annotation:Israel's possible withdrawal from Occupied Territories
Author:Shahin, Mariam
Publication:The Middle East
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:Turkey claims the oil route.
Next Article:Settlements by the back door.

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