AT midnight tonight, the deadline for the start of the withdrawal of Israeli settlers in Gaza will be reached and the evacuation has to be completed in 48 hours. It is far from clear whether those who have vowed not to be moved will resist the Israeli army and police until they are, quite literally, dragged out. In fact there is very little that is clear about this deadline and its consequences and the Palestinians are as much in the dark as anyone about how and when they will be able to take over authority in a territory that Israel has occupied and governed illegally since 1957. Despite the time that has been available to Ariel Sharon since he announced the withdrawal almost 18 months ago, Israel has still not agreed to relinquish control of access to and from Gaza by land, sea and air. The Palestinians consider that Gaza will remain the prison it has been for almost 50 years if it has no freedom of access with Israel itself, with the West Bank and with Egypt. When the Israeli settlers have finally been removed, the Israeli military will have the task of demolishing the homes, schools, synagogues, shops and other buildings that have been part of their presence in Gaza. This scorched earth policy is probably inevitable for many reasons but strenuous efforts have been under way to try to save the 1'000 acres of greenhouses in which tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, spices and flowers have been grown and earned Jewish farmers about US$75 million annually while giving employment to some 3'500 Palestinians. In an imaginative project a group of American donors has raised US$14 million as compensation to the Israeli farmers on the condition that they do not remove or destroy their greenhouses; unfortunately, however, it is estimated that about half of the installations have already been at least partly dismantled. It is difficult to be optimistic about the future of Gaza. The Israeli withdrawal was planned and is being executed wholly in the interests of Israel while the Palestinians are being left to pick up the pieces as best they can from a weak position and with minimal help from the international community.
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