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Israeli Pullout Creates Political Opportunity

Members of the military wing of Hamas staged a rally in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza late last month to celebrate the Israeli withdrawal.
Members of the military wing of Hamas staged a rally in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza late last month to celebrate the Israeli withdrawal. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

Hamas, which has yet to recognize Israel's right to exist, will be competing in its first national elections in January. The group characterizes Israel's departure from Gaza as a victory for its armed wing, which carried out ambushes, suicide bombings and missile strikes on Jewish settlements during the nearly five-year Palestinian uprising.

Leaders of Fatah, which operates its own militia, dismiss Hamas's claims. But they acknowledge that negotiating with Israel, which their party has favored since the 1993 Oslo accords established partial Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories, will be difficult to defend unless the Gaza withdrawal revives the peace process.

"Hamas has gone directly into the elections process by seeking to convince the Palestinians that they kicked the Israelis out of Gaza, and it is untrue," said Abdullah Frangi, head of the Fatah Mobilization Organization, the engine of the party's campaign machinery here. "But if there is not a new peace process with Israel, we will have a lot of trouble. And it is truly in Israel's best interest for us to succeed."

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, the head of Fatah, was involved in the Oslo process from the start and, whether it is politically popular or not, he remains committed to negotiations with Israel. But his party's image has suffered, and that is partly why Ghassan Khatib sits in a small, stuffy office here.

Owlish and pensive, Khatib was named planning minister three years ago as part of a reform cabinet. He is now the point man on managing the property Israel is about to hand over to the Palestinian Authority. It is telling, perhaps, that Khatib has never belonged to Fatah.

"Fatah has a very negative image, a legacy primarily of its performance in the first phase of the Palestinian Authority," Khatib said, referring to the period between 1994, when Yasser Arafat returned from exile to run the government, and the start of the uprising in 2000. "If these projects can create jobs and reduce poverty, then they may have a positive effect on its image. If not, they won't."

Like many Palestinian officials, Khatib said the Israeli occupation of Gaza will not end until Israel allows the Palestinian Authority to manage crossing points, operate airports and seaports, and have a trade link to the more populous West Bank. Only then, he said, will Gaza's economy have a chance to grow.

But he said protecting the land from partisan greed had been made easier by several recent public reforms, notably the first mandatory retirement law, which took effect Thursday. The regulation purged 4,000 senior Fatah officials from a variety of ministries. Although they are a small fraction of the overall civil service, Khatib said, the officials wielded outsize influence since arriving from Tunis with Arafat more than a decade ago.

"They are politically strong but completely unqualified," Khatib said.

Ziad Abu Amr, an independent member of the Palestinian parliament who often serves as a mediator between factions, said debate inside the government over how to manage the land was "quite a fight. It's very, very tempting to many interests."

The land and assets, including 4,000 greenhouses that make up the heart of the strip's agricultural industry, are being managed initially by the Palestinian Economic Development Corp., created by the cabinet in July with a budget of $100 million. The head of the agency, Bassil Jabir, is a Fatah member who previously ran the reform unit inside the prime minister's office.

Jabir said the lack of Israeli-Palestinian coordination preceding the evacuation had complicated the transfer process. The agency recently hired a nonprofit corporation from the West Bank to inventory the land and assets. The no-bid contract expires in six months.

"So far this has been like trying to sell fish while they are still in the sea," Jabir said. "We don't know how or when the products will be sold, and so we must assume 100 percent of the risk. But our intention is to go into privatization as soon as we can."

Abu Amr said he questioned cabinet ministers over why the private sector was not invited to bid on the inventory contract, which will lead to scores of subcontracts for Palestinian construction firms. The explanation -- that time was short -- was "not very convincing," he said, given that the Israelis have yet to leave the land.

"You don't want to give people from the very start a reason to suspect your motives," Abu Amr said. "If you're trying to prove your honesty before the elections, this would be a very bad way to start."

From his office in Deir el-Balah, a hive of informal activity with open doors and shouting aides, Kurd has a warning for political rivals who hope to rehabilitate their reputations along with the evacuated land.

For 28 years, he ran the Salah Association, an Islamic charity whose relief work, food rations and health services aided more than half of Gaza's 1.3 million people to varying degrees. It is sponsored by Hamas, which trounced Fatah in the recent municipal elections here.

"The affection and confidence of voters is not bought in an hour," Kurd said. "It is something that takes years to develop."

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