- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 14, 2005

BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip - First came the Israeli bulldozers to raze his home and acres of citrus groves. Months later, the barbed wire went up, leaving Hussein Abu Rabiyeh’s land stranded in a new buffer zone to protect nearby Israel settlements.

Now, after more than three years of separation from his land, the prospect that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will hand back the real estate still seems improbable to the Palestinian farmer from the northern Gaza village of Beit Lahiya.

“I would be so happy that I would have a heart attack,” he said. “If they leave, I’m going to get a bull and slaughter it, and then make food for everybody. There will even be enough for [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon.”

But Palestinian celebration over Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza — set to begin Wednesday — is perhaps the only certainty ahead as Israel’s 38-year occupation comes to an end.

Israelis have until midnight Tuesday to leave voluntarily. Beginning Wednesday, the remaining settlers will be evicted by the Israeli military.

Even as Gaza’s 1.4 million Palestinians await their first taste of freedom from foreign domination, uncertainty clouds the future of this war-torn corner of the Holy Land.

The Palestinian uprising has wrecked Gaza’s struggling economy, weakened law and order, and boosted religious extremism.

The withdrawal could change that. Housing projects slated for real estate occupied by the settlements after the Israeli exit could help spur an unprecedented economic boom in a region where unemployment levels reach beyond 50 percent.

And yet the withdrawal could exacerbate the existing lawlessness in Gaza while leaving the district isolated economically and politically. It’s a sure recipe, many Gazans say, for a new outbreak of violence.

The city of Khan Younis, the second-largest city in Gaza, located near the southern end of the strip, embodies the mix of optimism and worry stirred by the disengagement.

Abutting the Jewish settlement enclave of Gush Katif, the city of 170,000 has been a base of militants’ artillery fire at Israeli targets and has also absorbed numerous Israeli military incursions.

Now the city could be on the verge of a renaissance. The evacuation of Gush Katif will free up large tracts of land for development, as well as allow city residents unhindered access to the Mediterranean for the first time in years.

Khan Younis Mayor Osama Alfarra says that after the Israelis leave, he would like to build a strip of hotels along the beach that would be a tourist destination after Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Tel Aviv.

“The settlements represent a big obstacle for Khan Younis to develop,” he says. “We intend this area to be a center of tourism for the Gaza Strip, even for the entire region. We have the best beaches in Gaza.”

The vision can be found on a color-coded urban-planning map at the Khan Younis municipal center: Sky-blue blocs designate low-income housing; a lavender-shaded strip marks a bustling coastal area for restaurants and hotels.

But the plan represents just one scenario, Mr. Alfarra acknowledges. A chaotic evacuation of Israeli soldiers could give way to looting of valuable infrastructure. And if the borders to the outside world aren’t opened up, it will choke off badly needed investment for Gaza’s recovery.

“If the Israelis manage the borders like they are today, it will change Gaza from separate prisons into one big prison,” Mr. Alfarra says. “The situation will decline, and this will overshadow economic development.”

The unease is visible on the streets of Khan Younis. On a recent Saturday, a group of about 100 university graduates marched through the city’s commercial district, a drab strip of cinderblock buildings with storefronts, to protest corruption in public-sector employment.

Charges of cronyism and nepotism have weakened the Palestinian Authority over the past few years and boosted the popularity of Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Hamas. The Israeli pullout, the protesters say, isn’t expected to change that.

“The system is known. Everyone depends on their relations with the Palestinian Authority,” says Ashraf Umram, a business graduate. “We are demanding Palestinian Authority to provide us jobs.”

The corruption charges make it difficult for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to enforce a shaky cease-fire with Israel.

When the Palestinian Authority sent an armored personnel carrier into a stronghold of Islamic militants in the Jabaliya refugee camp last month to snuff out rocket fire into Israel, the vehicle was firebombed, triggering one of the worst internal Palestinian flare-ups in years.

The frustration with corruption severely hinders Mr. Abbas’ ability to use force to implement his campaign promise of enacting “one law and one gun.”

“People are bitter at the Palestinian Authority,” Sami Sweilan says. “The fact that they have no jobs, and that they have no future economically, makes [Mr. Abbas] a persona non grata.”

In Gaza City, a rebuilding effort is already under way, while the Palestinian government scrambles to plan for the day after all the Israelis are gone. Streets churned into rubble during the uprising of nearly five years are being repaved, and scaffolding obscures new construction sites.

Omar Shaban, a government consultant on the planning effort, says the project will stretch the authority’s organizational capabilities as well as its shallow pool of professional planners.

The task has been compounded by Israel’s reluctance to share information about settlement infrastructure and Israel’s post-pullout border regime for commercial and civilian traffic, he says.

“It’s a unilateral disengagement plan. It’s not a plan to free Palestine,” Mr. Shaban says. “We should not expect this plan to serve Palestinian ambitions, but we should be prepared for it. It’s a one-man show.”

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