Palestinians watch Islamic Jihad militants rally during celebrations of Israel's imminent pullout from Gaza in southern Gaza Strip
Mohammed Salem  /  Reuters
Palestinians watch Islamic Jihad militants rally during celebrations of Israel's imminent pullout from Gaza near the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim in the southern Gaza Strip on Thursday.
By Tom Aspell Correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/18/2005 2:10:35 PM ET 2005-08-18T18:10:35

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — As the withdrawal of Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip took a dramatic turn on Thursday — with the Israeli army forced to use water cannons to remove Jewish settlers from a synagogue — Palestinians in other parts of Gaza were watching with great interest, but not alot of sympathy.

As NBC News Tom Aspell reports from Gaza City, the emotional removal of Jewish settlers from Gaza Strip is not seen as a great victory by the Palestinians, but rather a "short dream" and a small step on the way to the "long dream" of Palestinian independence.

There were dramatic scenes of Israeli troops storming a synagogue in the Neve Dekalim settlement in the Gaza Strip on Thursday in order to drag out screaming Jewish settlers. Are Palestinians in Gaza City watching these images and what is their reaction to them?  
Well, I think they are watching them and of course they are interested to see the way the Israelis are doing it. They are interested in the fact that it’s really non-violent, and they are patiently waiting for it to be over.

I don’t think they are surprised by the process. They had the same information the settlers had all this time that that this was coming and that these were the methods that would be used.

They are looking forward to seeing the last of the Jewish settlers pull back from the Gaza Strip and they are looking forward to freedom of movement up and down the Gaza Strip.

For all Palestinians, the settlements were really an impediment to movement. They blocked off large areas of land, a total of about 20 percent of the whole Gaza Strip. They blocked off vital roads leading to the north and south, and east to west of the Gaza Strip — almost randomly at times it seemed.

So, now they will be able to move on all the roads, without Israeli checkpoints and without the settlers. They hope that the whole of the Gaza Strip will be free and accessible for them.

Is there a sense of sympathy or empathy for the Jewish settlers being dragged from their homes on the part of Palestinians because they’ve been through the same sort of thing themselves?
I have not heard the slightest bit of sympathy for them from the Palestinians. All that is heard on this side is that it’s been 38 years of occupation and it’s taken this long. Why has it taken this long? And thank God it’s finally over.

Has the imagery of the settler’s removal led to a shift among the Palestinians from feeling like the victim to now feeling momentarily like they are the victors?
Not at all. You would think that everyone here would be celebrating the end of this military occupation, but every Palestinian we’ve talked to has said that this is only a first step in the establishment of the Palestinian independent state. It’s not going to be Gaza first, and then Gaza last. There is still the West Bank and East Jerusalem, yet.

This is just the “short dream,” as they call it here. The withdrawal from Gaza is just the “short dream.” It’s the “long dream” that they really want and that’s of course Jerusalem.

How does Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, fit into the picture?
Well Hamas, and the other radical groups, are cooperating with the Palestinian Authority during the evacuation of the settlers to the extent that they’ve agreed to continue observing an informal ceasefire until the evacuation is finished.

They do emphasize that once the Israelis are gone, that the resistance to the occupation will continue in other parts of the country, in other words, in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

They point out that when the Israelis go, it’s really like the wardens in a jail merely moving from inside the jail to outside. They are well aware that the Israeli military is still posed around the Gaza Strip and that they are still under restrictions.

Israel controls the air space, the sea space, and all the border points. So, they are really saying that, in one sense, the Israelis are leaving and merely throwing the keys to another jailer outside. 

They are really still trapped inside the Gaza Strip. The only real advantage they are going to have is the freedom of movement inside the Gaza Strip.

The radical groups have told the Israelis that, as far as they are concerned, the fighting will continue until all of Israel is liberated.

I think the Israelis probably think that they have the Palestinians hemmed up inside here and that they will be less of a danger.

But, really, when you look back, only one or two suicide bombers came out of Gaza, simply because it was so easy to seal the place off. Most of the attacks against the Israelis happened with Palestinians on the West Bank. So, Gaza was never really too much of a danger toward Israel.

The radical groups know that their fighting stage, in this part, against the Israelis is more or less over.

But, they also think that their tactics have been successful against the Israelis in Gaza. So, they will try to spread those tactics to their supporters in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

What will the Palestinians next move be, now that they have been offered this olive branch of peace?
As far as Gaza is concerned, I think the Palestinian Authority will try to cooperate with radical groups. There are legislative elections scheduled for January of next year. The radical groups have announced they will be taking part in them.

I think that the Palestinian Authority, which is outmanned and outgunned here in Gaza by the radical groups, will have to treat them quite gently.

One example of cooperation that will extend after the evacuation, is what’s going to be done with the land that the Jewish settlements were on.

Many people were worried that the Palestinian Authority would simply give that land, and most of it is prime real estate on the Mediterranean, to businessmen who had connections with the Palestinian Authority. But, the radical groups are determined that it be given to the people who are most deserving — those who have lost family members or their houses during the Israeli occupation.

They have formed a 10-member committee, consisting of all the radical groups and the Palestinian Authority, to make that decision. So, if there is a certain amount of cooperation as to how the land is handed out, then that will bode well for the future.

If the radicals cooperate with the Palestinian Authority during the elections in January, I think they’ll move forward on the political front. The Palestinian Authority will be very careful to recognize the power of the radical groups inside the Gaza Strip and they will act accordingly.

Will the success of this pullout buy time on the part of Israel in terms of making progress on the so-called 'roadmap for peace?'

The Israelis will certainly be feeling as though they deserve a break. But, the Palestinians will be anxious to press ahead on the schedule of the road map.

One thing everyone is afraid of here, as far as world public opinion is concerned, is that the Israelis, by going through with this unilateral withdrawal, will give the impression to the outside world that they have made a concession without getting anything in return. So, that the next move is up to the Palestinians.  

The Palestinians certainly don’t see it that way. They see this as only about 2 percent of their land and there are only about 9,000 Jewish settlers here. When you look at the total of settlers in the West Bank, it’s probably about 280,000. So, you are really looking at only a small amount of land and a small number of settlers who are withdrawing from occupied territory.

In the overall picture it’s a very small move indeed. The Palestinians will be anxious to keep those figures in front of world opinion and to keep pressing for the dismantling of settlements on the West Bank, tearing down the wall which Israel has built on Palestinian land in the West Bank and around Jerusalem, and indeed to give Palestinians in Jerusalem access leading towards future independence. 

Many Palestinians realize that this is not really a victory. There are reasons why Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. They could not sustain the occupation anymore. There was no advantage to Israel. It was tying up large amounts of money and large numbers of troops to keep these settlers in the Gaza Strip for no real reason.

Once the Israelis have gone, the Palestinians are really not going to be much better off while Israel controls the borders, the air space, and the sea space.

The Palestinians are anxious because their whole population knows that this is just a really small part of the whole process and that there is a wider struggle yet to come — and that’s in the West Bank.

This is just really the tip of an iceberg. This is just really a very, very small start. The Palestinians know that when you look at the reality of the situation, they are still very much in a prison here, with the entries and exits controlled by Israel. So, they haven’t really gained a whole lot, apart from a small amount of land.

When compared with what they want —  a two-state solution, with an independent capital in Jerusalem — it’s very, very little.

So, they are anxious for the Palestinians to continue to fight for their larger rights as they see them.

Tom Aspell is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Gaza City.

Video: Synagogue stormed

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