Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he wants Israel to pull out of the Gaza Strip and some parts of the West Bank as part of a unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians. Mr. Sharon is seeking support for the plan within his own party and coalition government and is to present his ideas next week to President Bush during a visit to Washington.
It is business as usual in downtown Gaza City - Palestinian policemen directing traffic, children going to school, people out shopping.
But, just a short drive away, things are very different. Roads have been blocked off with concrete barriers and razor wire, farms have been turned into a barren no-man's land with houses demolished and trees uprooted. And, there are the tall, lone watchtowers. This is the typical scene around the Jewish settlements that dot the landscape in several parts of the Gaza Strip.
These are often the flashpoints in the ongoing conflict. Palestinian militants try to infiltrate and attack the settlements. Israeli soldiers stationed there to guard them, shoot at anyone approaching, and often move out to track down suspected militants and weapons caches.
Now Ariel Sharon is calling for the removal of these settlements and the soldiers. It would be hard to find a Palestinian who would not welcome an Israeli pullout. Shopkeeper Bassam Diazada says it is a positive sign.
?This is what we are fighting for, what the resistance is for,? he said. ?We want them to pull out from our territories. We have enough time, we are patient enough, we are fighting for the real purpose that we want our state. Now, step by step we will get what we are looking for.?
Mr. Diazada says he believes Mr. Sharon wants to pull out because of pressure from frequent attacks by Palestinian militants.
Militant groups such as Hamas have been in the forefront of staging those attacks. Hamas supporter Ghazi Hamad does not agree with Mr. Diazada's optimism that a Palestinian state is on the way. He does believe that an Israeli pullout will be a victory for the militants.
?I think Sharon will go out from Gaza," he said. "He feels like Gaza turned into a burden on his shoulder. He wants to minimize the security cost and also he wants to concentrate his forces and his security in the West Bank. I think the Palestinians look at this as a fruit of resistance and our struggle against occupation, against settlers here. So, we feel in general it's a kind of victory.?
But, Mr. Hamad is suspicious of Israeli motives. He believes Mr. Sharon wants to deal separately with the two blocks of land, Gaza and the West Bank. He believes the prime minister is telling Palestinians - you have Gaza, forget about the West Bank. That, he says, will not work.
Prime Minister Sharon has repeatedly said he is proposing unilateral action because peace talks with the Palestinians have gone nowhere and because the Palestinian leadership appears unwilling or unable to rein in the militants as a first step toward resuming negotiations.
In interviews published in Israeli media this week, Mr. Sharon says the pullout from Gaza will be good for Israel and he says he has agreed to give up a few settlements in the West Bank to satisfy the U.S. administration and leave open the door to possible future Israeli withdrawals. But, says Mr. Sharon, the withdrawal plan could delay Palestinian aspirations for an independent state for years to come.
That is exactly what Imad Falouji fears. He is a member of the Palestinian legislature and an adviser to Yasser Arafat.
Mr. Falouji says, ?If Sharon wants to leave Gaza, it's OK. We are very happy to see our land without Israel's occupation. But, the question is, what's the price Sharon wants if he leaves Gaza. If the price is to keep silent about what happens in the West Bank, to build settlements there. If Sharon thinks in terms of this price it's impossible to see any Palestinian agreeing to this price. All the Palestinians agree to make peace with Israel if Israel respects the minimum of our rights. This minimum means Gaza, West Bank, East Jerusalem.?
Palestinian economist Khaled Abdulshafi says an Israeli withdrawal could have some immediate positive economic consequences. But he warns the political impact would be damaging to the Palestinians and a setback to the internationally sanctioned road map peace plan, which stipulates a negotiated settlement and the creation of a viable, Palestinian state.
?Politically, it is a very dangerous plan because the Gaza pullout will be at the cost of the West Bank,? Mr. Abdulshafi said. ?If we look at the possibility of having a future viable Palestinian state, this is a setback. Sharon is intending to keep the settlements in the West Bank. So, from that point of view it's a negative development for sure and it is a setback in terms of the road map also. So, I believe the Palestinians should reject that plan at the political level. However, if Sharon decides to get out of Gaza it could be a positive development in terms of living conditions in the Gaza Strip because the pullback would release resources that were held by the Israelis in terms of land, water, the movement restrictions within the Gaza Strip are going to be lifted. So, definitely, this will have a positive impact on the Gaza economy, in a way.?
Mr. Abdulshafi warns that improved economic conditions will not end or even diminish the conflict.
There is general agreement among Palestinians here that a viable Palestinian state is the prerequisite for an end to the war with Israel, but for now most of them don't see that happening.