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Israeli Pullout Creates Political Opportunity
Shift of Gaza Land and Assets to Palestinians Sharpens Hamas-Fatah Rivalry

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 5, 2005

DEIR EL-BALAH, Gaza Strip -- This city of 60,000 people has been sandwiched for decades between two Jewish settlements that soon will be nothing but names on old maps. In their demolition, Ahmad Kurd, the city's frenetic mayor, sees opportunities for his people and his party.

With thinning white hair and an ear-to-ear smile, Kurd easily won the mayoral race here in February as part of a list of candidates sponsored by the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas. As the opposition party, Hamas took 13 of the 15 council seats, while the Fatah movement that fills out the bureaucratic ranks of the Palestinian Authority managed only one.

In Kurd's view, the Israeli withdrawal from its settlements in the Gaza Strip offers his party the chance to do well by doing good. Once the walls and gun towers fall, Kurd plans to extend sanitation and electricity service to the roughly 6,000 residents who have been cut off for years by the settlement security regimen. Gratitude for the improvements, he said, is unlikely to be lavished on either the departing Israelis or Gaza's Palestinian administrators.

"It is important to stress that none of this is happening because of negotiations with the Israelis," said Kurd, 56, who ran a Hamas-sponsored charity for years here before his election. "Palestinians have now discovered that 10 years of Palestinian Authority rule, 10 years of talking with the Israelis, produced nothing. The citizens are quite aware."

Israel's withdrawal from Gaza has changed the terms of political debate leading up to important Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 25 and sharpened the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, a secular nationalist movement. In the process, the land, water wells and other assets left behind are presenting the two parties with opportunities for political gain, as the campaign quickens for the right to govern what has become the proving ground for a future Palestinian state.

In withdrawing from the settlements, Israel is leaving 20 percent of Gaza's land. According to Palestinian Planning Ministry documents, much of it includes important water resources and environmentally sensitive areas, such as the marshlands of the Gaza Valley. Palestinian officials have sketched out plans for the area, but said details will have to wait until they get their first look at the land this month.

The settlement areas in the far north and south sit above aquifers, which planning documents say could be used to turn the regions into agricultural zones. An agricultural research center with links to a Palestinian university is envisioned for the southern settlement of Morag.

The central settlement of Netzarim will become part of the urban area of Gaza City and serve as part of the project to rehabilitate the city's seaport. The Erez industrial park in the north will be developed. But the smaller industrial area outside Neve Dekalim in the south will be dismantled, according to planning documents.

During the Israeli evacuation, Palestinian officials made a quixotic attempt to impose order on the celebrations unfolding in the streets, permitting only the Palestinian national flag to be displayed at public rallies. But the flags along median strips are increasingly outnumbered by party banners, militant slogans and triumphant graffiti.

Most of the displays are the trademark green of Hamas, including a pair of banners dangling outside the home of Abu Akram Bahar, located along a street of sand in Gaza City, about seven miles north of here.

"We do consider the Israeli withdrawal as an achievement of the steadfastness of all Palestinians," said Bahar, 56, a senior Hamas official with a tidy gray beard and a voice so soft the whirr of a ceiling fan washes it out. "In any event, there are elections coming up. The ballots will decide."

Behind the factions' competing claims of credit for the evacuation is a broader debate over whether war or negotiation is the most effective way to engage Israel, which left Gaza after 38 years without any Palestinian concessions.

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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