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Palestinians observe withdrawal in disbelief



Published: Mon, August 15, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Clothing is being made to proclaim Palestinian victory in Gaza.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- The men of Abu Olef Street peek around bullet-pocked homes, hoping to see moving vans at the Kfar Darom settlement. Old women stand in the swirling dust beyond the Netzarim settlement and envision the moment when Israeli tanks move beyond striking distance of their gardens.

As Israeli society engages this week in a painful pullout from the Gaza Strip, Palestinians are straining to imagine what comes next.

All they can absorb for now are images, blips of television broadcasts that make them blink and somehow believe. Settlers' cars heading north. Settlers and soldiers tussling. Pictures of empty houses and a vision of a different Gaza seem to be forming in front of their eyes.

"I was astonished. I thought: Is it really true? Israelis are packing? Really, I never believed the talk -- and now it seems it is true," signmaker Wael Abu Asi, 23, said in his workshop in the final hours before Israel embarked on a huge and once unthinkable decampment from the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians have lived in a state of suspended belief since the Israeli pullout was announced months ago. For years, 1.4 million Palestinians have been locked in deadly battle with 9,000 Jewish settlers for this poor patch of Mediterranean beach front. Twenty-one settlements are to be evacuated in Gaza, and four settlements are to be dismantled in the West Bank.

Few interviewed over the weekend said they had harbored any faith that Israel was serious about relinquishing its claim on the land or calling its soldiers home.

Victory declared

Then a few days ago, cell phones began ringing in small workshops around Gaza. The Palestinian political group Fatah needed 120,000 T-shirts printed with the slogan "Gaza First, Jerusalem and West Bank Next." The radical Islamic group Hamas wanted as many green baseball caps, printed with Quranic verse, ready in a week. The Palestinian Authority ordered cloth banners for beach-side parties to proclaim "Victory" in Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas agreed to cooperate during the transition -- a turn of phrase that had been interpreted to mean the militants wouldn't shoot settlers as they leave -- and word spread that the authority cut a deal to thwart other possible agitators.

Taxi and shuttle bus operators were signed to exclusive contracts to thwart mass rallies. Billboards in prime locations in Gaza were said to be rented to dampen dissent.




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