GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Hamas and other militant groups are discussing the formation of an "emergency" government to take charge in the event of an Israeli evacuation of the Gaza Strip, said a leading Hamas spokesman.
Concerns that Hamas could step into a political vacuum in Gaza were on the agenda of a team of senior U.S. envoys who arrived yesterday to hear details of the Israeli "separation plan." The State Department and National Security Council envoys were scheduled to meet today with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has said that Israel might withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip if there is no progress on the U.S.-sponsored "road map" peace initiative.
Palestinian officials tried yesterday to calm worries about a pullout. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told the Belgian parliament that the Palestinian Authority is ready to take control of Gaza, and Jibril Rajoub, the top security aide to authority leader Yasser Arafat, said he had received assurances from Hamas' leaders that the Islamic fundamentalist group isn't planning a takeover.
But Ghazi Hamid, who as editor of a Hamas-controlled weekly newspaper speaks for the party, told The Washington Times that the existing Palestinian leadership is too weak to cope with the upheaval of an Israeli pullout."The [Palestinian Authority] cannot take responsibility in this situation and we should look to a new leadership that can run the situation," he said.
"There is a dialogue among the Palestinian factions -- Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah -- to create a new leadership. It's kind of a temporary or emergency leadership. We need new leadership because we've spent 10 years under the current one and we've gotten nothing. The situation has deteriorated."
Mr. Hamid said Hamas wouldn't dare attempt a coup against Mr. Arafat, but he called for the establishment of a "collective leadership." In the past, Hamas has refused offers from Mr. Arafat to join the government.
The details of Mr. Sharon's withdrawal plan are hazy. The top-selling newspaper Yediot Ahronot said yesterday that Israel was gearing up to evacuate completely about 20 Jewish settlements in Gaza and hand over the property to some sort of international body.
Other reports have suggested that Israeli troops will patrol the enclaves after the evacuation of about 7,500 Israeli civilians in the 20 settlements.
The Bush administration is looking for clarification during the two days of meetings with Mr. Sharon and his aides. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, NSC Deputy Director Stephen Hadley and NSC Middle East expert Elliot Abrams met with Mr. Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weissglass, yesterday ahead of talks with the prime minister today.
A State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the United States was concerned that any unilateral action by Mr. Sharon would lead Israel and the Palestinians into "uncharted territory." Reports also have said that Israel is thinking of annexing parts of the West Bank, an idea the Bush administration opposes.
The U.S. envoys were expected to urge Mr. Sharon to negotiate the terms of any withdrawal with Mr. Arafat to ensure an orderly transition, but Israeli television commentators said last night that the prime minister would insist on acting unilaterally.
"Whatever is done, we want to see it done as part of the road map. Everyone has pronounced the road map as dead, but we at the State Department have not, nor has [President Bush,]" said Paul Patin, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy.
"All things being equal, we're against unilateral actions and favor negotiations. Having said that, we're not against all unilateral actions at all times.
"If Sharon said, 'We are going to evacuate Gaza,' we're not against that per se. We're intrigued by the idea of Sharon of all people deciding to evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip."
Mr. Hamid said Mr. Sharon had maneuvered the Palestinians into a corner. The vagueness of the Israeli plan has left Hamas as well as the Palestinian government unable to formulate a coherent response, he said.
"It's created a difficult situation for us. The situation in the Gaza Strip is gloomy. We don't know what will be," he said. "Will Gaza be like an island in the ocean without connection to others? Will people be able to continue to work in Israel? We have many questions, but no answers."