WE are less than three weeks away from the midAugust date set by Ariel Sharon to remove the remaining Israelis from their settlements in the Gaza strip. Until now most attention has focussed on the difficulties facing the Israeli government in persuading or forcing angry settlers to move from homes they have occupied for more than thirty years. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that another, and possibly greater, problem is whether Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority will be able to keep order in the territory suddenly returned to them. There is a real danger that Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad will try harrass the departing Israelis and even to challenge the internal powers of the Palestinian Authority's own security forces. A report published yesterday by Strategic Assessments Initiative, an independent Washington-based group, says that the Authority's security forces are divided, weak, overstaffed, badly motivated and underarmed. For starters! The ratio of personnel to weapons is 4:1 and Hamas and Islamic Jihad are better armed; ammunition is in short supply and unreliable and there is no coherent communications network. The report attributes these deficiences to the destruction of the Palestinian police infrastructure by the Israelis in military action since 2000. Even with the Gaza withdrawal imminent, the Israelis continue to be unhelpful: when the American General William Ward, who is co-ordinating the effort to improve the Palestinian security forces, asked the Israelis to allow the Palestinians to import new armoured vehicles and fresh supplies of arms, he was turned down. There are three possible doom scenarios for mid-August: there could be intensified rocket and mortar attacks on Israel from Gaza; the Gaza settlers could seek to provoke a violent Palestinian reaction in order to divert the Israeli army from removing them; there could be considerable unrest in Gaza, providing the Israeli government with an opportunity to return to the territory to keep order. This problem has been looming for well over a year. Proposals for a UN presence for an interim period were dismissed by Israel and the United States. Now we shall have to rely on keeping our fingers crossed.
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