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Is Gaza withdrawal a big step towards peace?

The Palestinian security forces have been on duty during the pull-out Keystone

Swiss pro-Israeli and Palestinian groups have voiced concerns over whether the Gaza withdrawal is a significant step forward towards lasting peace.

The Palestinian militant group, Hamas, has vowed to continue its armed struggle after Israel pulls out troops and an estimated 8,500 settlers from the occupied territory.

Israel’s historic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip got underway on Monday, with settlers given two days to evacuate the territory’s 21 Jewish settlements.

The United States has said it is hopeful the Israeli pull-out from the Gaza Strip will jump-start the peace process in the Middle East.

But Alfred Donath, president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, told swissinfo that there would only be progress if Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas reined in Hamas.

Last month there were armed clashes when Palestinian security forces tried to stop Hamas militants from firing rockets and mortar shells at Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip.

“The first step of the ‘road map’ is that [the Palestinian Authority] should stop terrorism. I really hope it can achieve this.

“But the way Hamas reacted on Saturday and the way they tried to present the whole withdrawal as a military victory over Israel is not the best way to calm the spirits of the population,” he said.

Crucial test

Donath believes the total withdrawal of Israeli security forces from the territory – bar a strip of land between Gaza and Egypt – represents a crucial test for Abbas.

He says that if Abbas succeeds in maintaining the ceasefire agreed with Israeli premier Ariel Sharon in February then the prospects of reaching a peaceful settlement in the Middle East look more promising.

“If the Palestinians can handle the situation in the Gaza Strip and show that it is not a base for attacks against Israel then the next step will be that Israel will withdraw from the West Bank as well,” said Donath.

“I think [the peace process] can move reasonably quickly if Hamas does not launch fresh terrorist attacks and a new intifada,” he added.

Peace negotiations

Saïda Keller-Messahli, board member of the Association Switzerland-Palestine, echoed the view that a smooth transition was key to progress in peace negotiations.

But she warned that as long as Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem the likelihood of further terrorist attacks would remain.

“The Palestinians will be content to see that the occupation of Gaza has ended but they also know that this is not the end – it is just a small, symbolic beginning,” said Keller-Messahli.

“Our view is that it is the declared policy of Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip but to intensify the settlements and occupation of the West Bank. We don’t think that this is a way to bring security because as long as the West Bank is so brutally occupied, the people in the Gaza Strip will not be quiet,” she added.

Occupied territories

Palestinian leader Abbas issued a statement on Monday welcoming the withdrawal from Gaza but called on Israel to pull out of all the occupied territories.

Keller-Messahli said it was now up to the Israeli government to present a political solution for the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“I’m sure this would be a leap forward, something constructive to show the people that there is the possibility of peace. But the Gaza withdrawal on its own is not enough,” she added.

She said such a move would also bolster the Palestinian Authority in its struggle for power with Hamas. On Monday Abbas announced that long-delayed legislative elections would take place on January 21, 2006.

“Israel really needs to make steps towards the Palestinian Authority otherwise it will not have a chance of surviving politically,” said Keller-Messahli.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

8,500 Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip have been given 48 hours to leave the territory occupied since 1967.

The Palestinian militant organisation, Hamas, has vowed to continue its armed struggle against Israel after the Gaza withdrawal.

7,500 Palestinian security men in Gaza have moved into position on the outskirts of the fortified settlements to ward off possible militant attacks.

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