Gazans Fear This Might Not Be Goodbye

Outside the Israeli settlement of Neve Dekalim a group of Palestinians waited patiently under a corrugated iron roof near an Israeli barrier to cross back to their village.

The Gush Katif bloc of settlements in southern Gaza, of which Neve Dekalim is one, have cut their village Al-Mawasi off from the large Khan Younis town with a population of 170,000, and the rest of the Palestinian controlled areas.

Some had been waiting an hour but everybody remained calm. There was a bitter sort of equanimity coming from an expectation that nothing would change for the better, even after the announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that he is preparing the evacuation of 17 Gaza settlements.

"Of course our lives would improve if the settlements disappeared," said Abu Haitham, an unemployed father of five. Sitting on his haunches in the sand waiting for a bus, he spoke of restrictions on movement, curfews and shooting incidents.

Al-Mawasi is a microcosm of the trouble that the settlements cause the Palestinian population.

The fishermen’s village remained under Israeli control after the army withdrew from most of Gaza in 1994 under the Oslo peace agreements. The village with a population of a few hundred lies in the midst of the Israeli settlements that also remained in place for their status to be settled in a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Instead the Intifadah broke out in September 2000, and access to Al-Mawasi was severely curtailed.

"I don’t believe that Sharon will ever do what he has announced," said Abu Haitham. "Just look at what they did this week. Is that what that somebody would do who is planning to leave in peace?"

The Israeli army had entered Gaza City and Rafah in the south on the border with Egypt on Wednesday. They said the action in Gaza was directed against militants firing mortar grenades at Israeli settlements and at towns inside Israel.

Twelve Palestinians were killed in heavy fighting. Most of them were armed and had been involved in the fighting. In Rafah two people were killed in what the army called an operation to search for tunnels under the border.

Such operations are nothing new. Rafah is frequently the scene of such confrontations. But in the context of Sharon’s announcement, it assumes a different dimension. Many in Gaza see the incursions as proof that Sharon is not serious, others see it as muscle-flexing to prove that the Israeli army will be in control even after a withdrawal.

Some 7,500 Israeli settlers live in Gaza amidst 1.4 million Palestinians. But the settlements take up 30 per cent of the surface area, including some of the best agricultural land and water resources. Gush Katif is the largest bloc of settlements, close to Khan Younis.

Al-Mawasi is not the only place in the Khan Younis area that suffers as a result of the settlements. Most neighborhoods that face the settlements bear the scars of fighting.

In Namsawi area overlooking Neve Dekalim almost all the buildings at the edge of Palestinian controlled territory are pockmarked with holes; large ones from tank shells and smaller ones from bullets and shrapnel.

"Almost every day there is shooting from the settlements," says Adnan Wadi who lives with his wife and five children in a building at the edge of the neighborhood. He lost his house in the Delta neighborhood of Khan Younis in the fighting in 2002 and he said he had nowhere else to go to.

"When the shooting starts, often at night, we all sit in one room," he said. "There is nothing else we can do."

Wadi said at first that the firing from the settlements was always unprovoked. But after a while he admitted that Palestinians fire at the settlements from behind the wall of the Muslim cemetery between Namsawi and Neve Dekalim.

In the cemetery a leader from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) shows the spot from where he says mortars are launched into the settlement. He gives his name as Abu Mohammed. The settlements are "legitimate targets," he says. He is unapologetic about the people in the settlements, who also suffer due to the fighting.

Abu Mohammed and his assistant Abu Jeryes consider the settlements military bases on Palestinian territory. Abu Jeryes who seems to have the more hands-on combat experience of the two, says Israelis use the settlements to launch incursions, for firing at Palestinians, as intelligence centers, and to cut off movement of people within the Gaza strip.

They say a dismantling of the settlements would be a huge victory for the resistance. They seem to be among few people in the Gaza strip who do believe that Sharon may carry out his plans to evacuate the settlements.

"Sharon was pressured by the high cost of the settlements because of the resistance," said Abu Jeryes. "It costs a lot to guard the settlements and we exact a high cost in human lives as well."

The PFLP leaders stay in touch with other militant groups within the umbrella Popular Resistance Committees. They are adamant they will not lay down their arms, even after a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, they say they are fighting until the whole of historic Palestine, including what is now Israel, is in Palestinian hands.

"If they leave we will follow them," said Abu Jeryes. "We will pursue them and fight them wherever we find them."

Such threats will not please the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah movement of Yasser Arafat, which is expected to exert control over the strip. Fatah has declared it will maintain peace after an Israeli withdrawal.

Zakaria Al-Agha, a Fatah leader in Gaza does not believe the Israelis will leave. But if they do, "we would deal with the people who want to fight," he says.

"At present we cannot move our forces freely through the strip, and if we act we are seen as collaborating with the Israelis," he said. "Once they are gone it is very clear that we only act in order to provide security for our own people, not the settlers."