GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—There were emotional standoffs, burning barricades, curses and plenty of tears. But by week's end, Israel's divisive and historic plan to clear its citizens out of the occupied Gaza Strip had gone so smoothly that many people are asking: What next?
The military operation swept into most of the 21 Gaza Strip settlements and dislodged not only the longtime settlers who wanted to make a symbolic stand but also thousands of outside agitators.
While there could still be some pockets of resistance in a couple of the eight remaining settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank that will be closed, the focus is already turning to where the Israelis and Palestinians go from here.
For Israel, there is still much to be done. The military must dismantle its outposts, demolish thousands of homes, relocate Jewish cemeteries and hand over the land to the Palestinians.
Then, it will fall to the Palestinians to use the momentum to begin sowing the seeds of an independent state. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas faces some serious obstacles.
First and foremost is the region's connection to the outside world.
Israel has plans to build a new high-tech barrier around the Gaza Strip and is hesitant to allow Palestinians to reopen the airport. Without free access, many Palestinians worry that the Israeli pullout won't end the occupation, but will isolate impoverished Palestinians in the overcrowded coastal area.
Most men between the ages of 16 and 35 have long been barred from leaving the region, and many worry that Israel won't ease up on travel restrictions.
"It's like being in a prison," said 22-year-old Basma Badri as she held her infant son at a Gaza City restaurant. "What's important is not just to withdraw, but to make real change in coming out to the West Bank and Egypt."
More than anything, Palestinians are worried that the pullout will not mark the start of renewed peace talks, but the end.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pushed through the pullout as a unilateral move after growing frustrated with stalled peace talks and the violent Palestinian uprising. The death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat paved the way for a new era of potential compromise, but Abbas is off to a shaky start.
Palestinian militants are testing Abbas' strength and determination to rein in armed groups. The militants view the Israeli pullout as a triumph not for moderation and compromise but for violent confrontation.
While Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups largely have kept their commitments not to launch provocative attacks on the Israeli settlements during the pullout, both groups are vowing to take their military campaigns on to the West Bank.
The friction was evident Saturday in Gaza City. While Abbas was announcing legislative elections would be held on Jan. 25, members of Hamas called the Israeli pullout proof that armed resistance is the right path to a Palestinian state.
"To our dear brethren in the West Bank and occupied Jerusalem, we say that our blood is your blood, our land is your land," said Abu Obaida, a masked leader surrounded by militants with machine guns and grenade launchers. "We will never forsake you or surrender you to the enemy. We will strike at the enemy if it stays on any area of our land."
Militants also have been targeting Palestinian government officials with bombs, challenging police officers in street battles and kidnapping foreign aid workers for short periods of time. One French journalist kidnapped this month remains missing, raising concerns that the situation could spiral out of control.
"If you're going to induce the private sector to come, today's environment will not do," said Nigel Roberts, director of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the World Bank. "There has to be a dramatic, visible change in the environment that will face investors."
Like Hamas, Abbas does not see the Gaza Strip settlement as the end of the road. But the moderate president, who has called the four-year Palestinian uprising a mistake, has to convince average Palestinians that negotiations can lead them to an independent state that includes the West Bank and Jerusalem as its capital.
One way for Abbas to demonstrate leadership is to quickly press ahead with plans to rebuild the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, and launch new construction projects on the old settlement land.
That won't be easy. Many Palestinians are skeptical of the government and view the leadership as corrupt.
"The people have no confidence in the Palestinian Authority," said Basem Shurrab, who heads up the Khan Younis planning department in charge of transforming the largest Israeli coastal settlement bloc into new housing, farmland and possibly a resort.
What happens on the Palestinian side also will have a major impact on Israeli politics.
Sharon has staked his career on the success of the pullout. The longtime advocate of the settler movement sold the plan as a way to better protect Israelis by moving thousands out of the disputed region while working to shore up political support for hundreds of thousands of other settlers living in the West Bank.
Israeli leaders are adamant that its largest settlements circling Jerusalem and in the West Bank will never be handed over to Palestinians. The Palestinians note that the Gaza Strip settlers represent a small fraction of those living in occupied land.
Some of the displaced settlers, many now living in temporary housing in Israel, are now making plans to find new homes in the West Bank settlements.
Sharon is gambling that the pullout will help reduce attacks on Israel. So far, Israelis are with him. A survey released last week found nearly 60 percent of Israelis support the pullout and the prime minister.
But it might take just one devastating suicide bomber from Gaza to convince the same people that the strategy has failed.
That would create an opening for Sharon's most formidable rival—Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister who resigned as finance minister right before the pullout plan began. Netanyahu warned that Israel's move would create a fertile environment for militants and encourage them to step up their operations in the West Bank.
If that happens before Sharon calls the next round of elections, the prime minister could find himself becoming a casualty of his own political plan.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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