Ten years ago, if the Palestinians had been told that Ariel Sharon, father of the Israeli settlement movement, would be offering a near-complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, most probably would have rejoiced at the prospect.
However, when the Israeli prime minister dropped that political bombshell last week by signaling that he intended to uproot almost every Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip -- something the Arabs have demanded for years -- Palestinians greeted the announcement with a mixture of caution and skepticism.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei welcomed the idea, saying, "In our view, every evacuation of a settlement is welcome."
His boss, PA President Yasser Arafat, condemned the move. "A unilateral withdrawal in Gaza contradicts the 'road map,'" Arafat adviser Nabil Abu Rudeineh said, referring to an internationally backed peace plan. "It will not bring forward a solution but will rather complicate the situation."
If the offer by an Israeli prime minister to cede Gaza unilaterally -- with no corresponding Palestinian concessions -- does not please them, then what exactly do the Palestinians want?
"The conflicting reactions are not surprising," said Palestinian intellectual Hanan Ashrawi, a former PA minister and peace negotiator. "They are both right."
Qurei welcomes the principle of a cost-free Israeli withdrawal, while Arafat is wary of a trap, Ashrawi said.
"We have seen all sorts of trial balloons before," she said. "Whenever Sharon is in trouble, he launches something, but there is nothing particular on the ground. He sold the same goods several times in the past. I will believe it when I see it."
Many Palestinians suspect that even if Sharon is serious about leaving Gaza, he will try to balance that concession by strengthening Israel's hold on the West Bank. It often is easier for the Palestinians to reject Israeli initiatives than to welcome them.
Arafat has a history of rejecting generous Israeli offers, most notably at the Camp David summit in July 2000. Arafat often uses rejection as a negotiating tactic, later returning to the spurned offer as the starting point for further demands.
The Palestinian reaction also harkens to Israel's experience in Lebanon, where after demanding for years that Israel withdraw forthwith from its southern Lebanese security zone, Lebanon and its patron, Syria, howled in protest when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced his intention to withdraw.
But there is more to the Palestinian reaction than simple distrust of Sharon. The reaction reflects the political vacuum in the Palestinian-populated territories. In the absence of a real, effective landlord, Palestinians fear that Israel's departure could worsen the mess in Gaza.
"The question is who will take over?" Ashrawi said. "I am afraid there is going to be chaos."
Some Palestinians fear that if Israel quits Gaza, Hamas will take over and challenge the hegemony of Arafat and his Fatah movement in the Palestinian territories. Additionally, unilateral Israeli steps render Arafat and his Palestinian Authority virtually irrelevant, further weakening the Palestinian Authority's hand.
There still is a chance that Sharon's initiative may reignite peace negotiations. After the interview with the Ha'aretz newspaper in which Sharon publicized his Gaza initiative, Qurei contacted key figures in the Gaza Strip to ask for a report on the possible impact of an Israeli withdrawal.
At the same time, Qurei renewed contacts with Israelis trying to facilitate a long-delayed meeting with Sharon. Qurei has canceled meetings with Sharon on numerous occasions, demanding that Sharon first agree to freeze construction of Israel's West Bank security barrier, among other concessions.
Mahdi Abdul Hadi, who heads the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, said Sharon's Gaza initiative is part of decades-long effort "to partition Palestine."
"This is yet a new Israeli chapter trying to lock the Palestinians into small pieces of land," he said.
Hisham Awartani, an economist and formerly a senior lecturer at Najah University in Nablus, said that not only does he distrust Sharon, but he doesn't believe the separation idea can work.
"I don't think a total separation is feasible," he said, explaining that Israel and the Palestinian Authority are simply too interdependent to be separated.
So what will happen to the Palestinians if Israel withdraws from Gaza?
Hadi suggested three scenarios:
- The Palestinians will fight Israel's unilateral withdrawal with an international campaign "very much like the initiative to take the security fence to the International Court of Justice."
- The Islamists will take the upper hand in Gaza.
- The Palestinians will look for support to their one-time patron, Jordan.
Ashrawi said the first scenario is the most likely -- at least until the post-Sharon era. Israel must talk with the Palestinians, not take unilateral moves, Ashrawi said.
"Sharon will need to talk to Arafat," she said. "Only Arafat can deliver."
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