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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As far as the Palestinians are concerned, Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip still hasn't ended one year after the evacuation of all the settlers and IDF soldiers from the area. In their world, Israel remains the major occupation force in the Gaza Strip because it continues to "besiege" the area by land, air and sea.
The Palestinians never accepted the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, claiming that Israel was pulling out only so that it could tighten its grip on the West Bank.
Before the withdrawal, some Palestinians even warned that such a move would strengthen Hamas and other radical groups because it would be regarded as a victory over Israel.
Israel's refusal to coordinate the withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority created the impression on the Palestinian street that Israel was retreating in the face of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. Public opinion polls published over the past year have shown that the majority of Palestinians are totally convinced that Israel ran away from the Gaza Strip because it could no longer put up with the attacks of the armed groups, especially Hamas.
That's why many Palestinians were not surprised when Hamas scored a landslide victory in the January parliamentary election. True, many Palestinians voted for Hamas because they were fed up with Fatah's corruption and failure to improve their conditions, but many others also cast their ballots for the Islamic movement because they felt that it had succeeded, through its terror campaign, to drive the Israelis out of the Gaza Strip.
Hamas candidates who ran in the election boasted that their movement was right in launching terror attacks on Israel "Because this is the only language the Jews understand." Fatah, they explained, did not get from Israel during the ten years of the peace process as much as Hamas got in four and a half years of fighting during the second intifada.
"We warned the Israelis back then that their unilateral withdrawal would send the wrong message to the Palestinians, but they refused to listen to us," said a top PA official this week. "We told them that Hamas and [the] Islamic Jihad would be celebrating and that they would take credit for defeating Israel. Frankly, I was not surprised by the Hamas victory in the election. Many Palestinians are saying that violence pays and that this is the only way to force Israel to give up territory."
Politically, the disengagement has been a disaster for the "moderate" camp among the Palestinians. Not only did the move boost Hamas' popularity on the street, it has also created more chaos and lawlessness, especially in the Gaza Strip. The power struggle that has been raging between Hamas and Fatah ever since the election earlier this year has created a two-headed monster that is now supposed to be running the affairs of the Palestinians. Although Fatah lost the vote, its leaders, including PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, are behaving as if they have a monopoly on the PA regime.
The power struggle has created a lot of confusion among Palestinians, who are no longer sure whether Hamas or Fatah are the legitimate government. The squabbling has also confused foreign governments, some of which are seen by the Palestinians as siding with the guys who lost the election against the guys who won in a democratic and free vote.
The political turmoil in the Gaza Strip, which has escalated since the withdrawal, has been accompanied by serious and dangerous setbacks on two other fronts: security and economy.
On the security level, the Gaza Strip has been turned into a huge playground for dozens of armed militias, mostly belonging to Fatah and Hamas, prompting local human rights activists to draw parallels with war-torn Somalia and Lebanon during civil war in the 1970s and '80s.
With regard to the PA security forces, they seem to be as incompetent as ever. As such, the 30,000 policemen in the Gaza Strip have become part of the problem; many of them don't know whether they should report to the Hamas government in Gaza City or Abbas's office in Ramallah.
The tensions between Fatah and Hamas have so far claimed the lives of over 100 people in the past few months. Hardly a day passes without a report about mutual kidnappings, armed clashes or assassinations.
As one Palestinian journalist in the Gaza Strip put it this week, "We are beginning to look more like Iraq, where people are killed every day in sectarian violence." The journalist attributes the upsurge in violence to the fact that many of the militiamen roaming the streets have been left unemployed since the evacuation of the settlements and IDF bases in the Gaza Strip.
"Because there are no Jews in the Gaza Strip, these gunmen are bored," he explained. "And because they are bored, they start fighting each other."
BUT THE question which many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are asking themselves these days is: Where is Abbas and why isn't he doing anything to stop the violence? Abbas, they contend, could have done a lot to change the situation following the Israeli withdrawal.
But Abbas and his top aides have since been busy trying to undermine the Hamas government so that they could return to power. Instead of ordering his loyalists in the security forces to make an effort to halt the rocket attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip, Abbas has been stubbornly endeavoring to bring his Fatah party back to government. The fact that his Fatah militias are responsible for most of the rocket attacks against Israel after the pullout has not even prompted him to make the slightest effort to disarm them.
On the economic level, the disengagement has not improved the living conditions for thousands of impoverished Palestinians who were hoping that the international community and investors would seize the opportunity to turn the Gaza Strip into the Hong Kong of the Middle East. Most of the greenhouses left behind by the settlers have either been turned into training camps for various militias or have been (illegally) seized by gangsters and local families.
Only a few workers have benefited from the greenhouses, which were supposed to provide employment for some 10,000 families.
Even the fact that the Gaza Strip has its own border crossing with Egypt after Israel relinquished control over the Rafah terminal has not changed the situation for the better. Aware of the fact that the Gaza Strip has been turned into a major base for militias and that the central government there is almost non-existent, the Egyptians have not been keen on doing much business with their neighbors.
On the contrary, the Egyptians are worried about the recurring attempts to smuggle cash and weapons through the terminal, as well as repeated incursions across the border by knocking down the concrete fence that separates the two areas.
According to a senior PA official, the PA has failed in its attempts to attract foreign investors to the area. "Under the current circumstances, only a fool would be willing to invest his money in the Gaza Strip," he commented.
Given the political, economic and security disasters that have plagued the Palestinians since unilateral disengagement, it's hard to find one Palestinian these days who believes that a similar move in the West Bank could result in anything positive.