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THE ISRAELI WITHDRAWAL

Arab World Sees Gaza as a Frustratingly Small Step

Observers say Israel simply gave back something it stole; they worry for the future.

August 22, 2005|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — The cartoon in Al Ahram, Egypt's government-run newspaper, may sum up the Arab view.

In the drawing, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon nonchalantly tosses a picked-clean bone onto the outstretched plate of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. The bone is labeled "Gaza," but Abbas barely gives it a glance. He yearns instead for the fat leg of lamb in Sharon's other hand, dangling maddeningly out of reach.

The same point was hammered throughout the Arab world these past days as pervasive images of weeping Jewish settlers being pulled from their homes in the Gaza Strip flashed live on television: The ongoing withdrawal is an important step, but the woes of the Palestinian people are far from over.

With no clear prospects for peace, Palestinian statehood or the large-scale evacuation of settlements in the West Bank, the real prizes still seemed out of reach. So the evacuation of Gaza and four small West Bank settlements drew scant celebration from Arab neighbors.

Arabs are "wary about the future of the process and what kind of price will be paid," said Abdel Moneim Said, director of Egypt's Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. "There's a kind of mistrust regarding the whole process."

Many Arabs, jaundiced by decades of Arab-Israeli struggles, remain deeply skeptical of Sharon's intentions. Many argue that he has disengaged from Gaza because it's a desolate, cramped strip of land not worth the security headaches and risk of allowing 1.3 million Palestinians to upset Israel's demographic balance.

"Israel is doing the right thing, but perhaps for the wrong reasons," Lebanese columnist Rami G. Khouri argued in the Daily Star newspaper. "It is a shame that so few voices in Israel or among the Jewish community around the world would come out and say in clear terms that Israel is leaving because occupation is illegal, morally wrong, and politically counterproductive. Or that the Palestinians have the right to live in freedom, independence and national dignity."

Few Arabs are inclined to sympathize with the Israeli trauma of sending sorrowful soldiers to remove crying, kicking Jewish brethren from homes in Gaza. The painful pictures that seared Israeli consciousness drew a shrug, and even annoyed accusations of propaganda, from many Arab observers.

"It's stolen land and now they have to give it back, and still they didn't give it back willingly," said Khaled Batarfi, a columnist at Saudi Arabia's daily Arab News. "They were fighting to the last minute. How can you have sympathy for these kinds of people?"

Mainstream Arab thought has long dismissed Israel's settlement project as a residue of colonialism. Many people here stereotype settlers as European and American racists who kick Arabs off their land in the name of an abstract, Bible-based claim that God bequeathed "greater Israel" to the Jewish people.

Arab analysts generally interpret Jewish settlements through the lens of the Geneva Convention, which bans occupying powers from transferring civilian populations onto occupied territory. Settlements are widely assailed among Israel's Arab neighbors as "war crimes."

Arab public opinion has been particularly annoyed by the idea that the borders and coast of Gaza would continue to be controlled by Israel.

"The Gaza Strip will remain besieged by the occupation forces from land, sea and air," said the Syrian newspaper Tishreen. "That is, the strip has moved on to another form of occupation, turning into what resembles a major prison or an ugly racist ghetto."

The withdrawal has been a particularly sensitive topic here in Egypt, which borders Gaza. As Israelis complete their pullout, Egyptian soldiers are expected to deploy in the strip of land dividing Gaza from Egypt, accepting increased responsibility for preventing guns and militants from slipping between the two lands. Cairo's willingness to step up security is a condition of the Israeli withdrawal.

With domestic discontent at stake, the Egyptian government has appeared eager to remind the public that the evacuation is an important step. Editorials in government newspapers celebrated the settlers' departure as "without doubt a major victory for the Palestinian cause."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak marked the withdrawal by sitting for a rare interview with Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot last week. He praised Sharon as a strong leader and a man of his word.

Mubarak said he might travel to Israel to attend a memorial for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, gunned down 10 years ago by an Israeli extremist who believed the Israeli leader had sacrificed too much in a peace deal with the Palestinians. Mubarak attended Rabin's funeral; he hasn't visited Israel since.

But the expected deployment of Egyptian soldiers has chafed public opinion in Egypt, where many people remain sympathetic to Palestinian militants and dislike the idea of Egypt helping Israel crack down on what is regarded by many here as a just fight.

"It doesn't benefit us, and it doesn't benefit the Palestinian cause. Egypt is just empowering the enemy this way," said Mohammed Moustafa, a 25-year-old medical student who this weekend joined a small protest in Cairo against Egypt's increased involvement in Gaza.

"Before our peace deal with Israel, the Egyptian citizen had a good reputation in the Arab world," Moustafa said.

"Now the Arabs call us traitors. And by sending troops to Gaza ... again we are going to look like traitors."

Times staff writer Jailan Zayan contributed to this report.

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