The Disengagement Summer After Gaza Withdrawal, Palestinians Focused on Economic Rehabilitation

Contrary to Israeli fears, Palestinian terrorist groups held their fire during the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The doomsday prophecies that the Israeli withdrawal would take place under fire did not come true. Some see this as proof that the Palestinian election campaign has begun and that Hamas has an interest in projecting the image of a responsible and legitimate political force that can run state affairs as effectively as it can wage war. Hamas leaders, too, read the polls.

One recent poll, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion in Ramallah, has shown that the majority of Palestinians believe the Palestinian Authority can’t improve their quality of life.

Nabil Kukali, the center’s director, noted that the majority of Palestinians favor an open market and joint ventures between Israelis and Palestinians. The vast majority, around 77 percent of respondents, worry about their families’ subsistence and believe the Palestinian Authority is unable to provide opportunities to laborers who used to work in Israel

The election campaign may focus more on who can improve the economy than on who can best fight the Israelis.

General elections are set for Jan. 25, 2006. Hamas previously refused to participate in elections, arguing that this meant recognition of the Oslo accords — which led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority — and thus of Israel, which Hamas refuses to accept.

Now Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon before it, is joining the political system. It’s too early to tell whether this will replace the group’s terrorist activities or exist alongside them.

P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas opened the election campaign over the weekend in Gaza, linking the Israeli withdrawal to the “road map” peace plan and demanding a “permanent settlement in which the Gaza Strip and the West Bank will be void of settlements.”

But the real challenge lies less in the political statements than in economic developments. Gaza residents will judge the electoral contenders mostly by their ability to use the void left by departing Israelis to improve Palestinian welfare.

“It is time for us to stop building other countries and concentrate on building our homeland,” Abbas said at a weekend rally in Gaza. He was referring to the chronic Palestinian need to seek work, whether in Israel or in Arab countries. Some 120,000 Palestinian workers used to work in Israel until the Palestinians launched the intifada in September 2000, leading Israel to close its border because of security concerns.

“The little jihad is over, and now we have the bigger jihad — the bigger battle is achieving security and economic growth,” Abbas said, intentionally using Hamas’ vocabulary referring to holy war.

Much could depend on the cash flow from potential donors, though the Palestinians in the past squandered massive infusions of international aid through terrorism and corruption. The G-8 industrialized countries promised $3 billion for Gaza’s economic rehabilitation. The bulk of the money will go to projects such as a new seaport, housing construction and infrastructure. The United States already provides the Palestinians with roughly $1 billion a year.

The Palestinians plan to build apartment complexes on top of the demolished settlements. One plan, for example, calls for a 4,000-unit housing project in place of the Morag settlement in the southern Gaza Strip. Israeli contractors hope to take part in the impending building tenders.

“We have officially notified the Palestinians that we are willing to help,” Housing Minister Yitzhak Herzog said.

Businessman Shmuel Flatto-Sharon has expressed interest in building a casino in the evacuated settlement of Elei Sinai, on the Gaza-Israel border a few miles south of Ashkelon.

The Israeli Manufacturers Association is optimistic. Its president, Shraga Brosh, said negotiations are underway to revive the industrial zone near the Erez checkpoint, along with other industrial projects.

Through the mediation of James Wolfensohn, who is coordinating economic aid to the Palestinians on behalf of the diplomatic “Quartet” of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia, some 3,500 acres of greenhouses in the Gush Katif settlement bloc have been sold to Palestinians for some $14 million.

Mohammed Dahlan, the P.A. Cabinet minister in charge of coordinating the withdrawal with Israel, recently told Forbes magazine that the greenhouses would have created 7,000 jobs in the strip.

But any economic progress depends on a continuation of the cease-fire that largely has held since the winter. Palestinian political analysts say that like Hezbollah, Hamas aims to form a bloc in the next Palestinian Parliament, but at the same time it wants to keep its arms to retain a terrorist option.

Most analysts expect Hamas to maintain a measure of restraint until the elections. The behavior of other terrorist groups, such as Islamic Jihad or the mainstream Fatah movement’s Al-Aksa Brigade, can’t be predicted.

Palestinian provocations could trigger sharp Israeli reactions, both military and civilian. When Hezbollah fired Katyusha rockets at Israeli targets in the Galilee following Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Israel threatened to bomb power installations in Beirut — though those threats largely were largely seen as hollow.

If Palestinians attack Israeli targets, Israel in theory could cut off Gaza’s power supply. Gaza is also dependent on Israel for gas and water.

Renewed Palestinian terrorism also may throw into question the revival of the “safe passage” arrangement between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, an essential element in building a viable Palestinian state.

Even if there is quiet on the Israeli front, a state of anarchy could upset all economic plans for Gaza. In an effort to prevent such a development, Abbas over the weekend issued a presidential decree temporarily confiscating all land and property left behind by Israel.

Gaza residents, who had expected to reclaim ownership of land they lost to Israeli settlements, now will have to file applications to a Palestinian Authority committee.

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