Gaza Pullout Uncoordinated; Deadline Looms

Less than a month before Israel begins pulling out of Gaza, almost every major issue about the territory's future remains undecided. What will happen to the settlers' houses and greenhouses? Who will control the Gaza-Egypt border crossing? How will Gazans export goods, and will they be able to reopen their airport?

Palestinian officials are desperate to resolve these issues and show their people they are taking a decisive role in this historic event. But Israel, which holds most of the cards, remains ambivalent: hoping to negotiate a smooth withdrawal while not being drawn into too many commitments.

Coordinating the pullout is considered so crucial to Gaza's future success -- and that of subsequent Mideast peace efforts -- that international mediators, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have been working to push the two sides into agreement.

"The Palestinians need answers from the Israelis, and the Israelis need answers from the Palestinians," Rice said during a trip here that ended Saturday.

Neither side wants a post-pullout Gaza to explode in chaos, plunge deeper into poverty or fall under the control of the Islamic Hamas group. And they have met regularly to coordinate efforts to prevent Palestinian militants from attacking soldiers and settlers during the pullout, which would invite an Israeli response.

"We both have the same interests in (a quiet) withdrawal," said Tawfiq Abu Khoussa, a spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry.

But their interests diverge on other issues, and a recent wave of violence further postponed efforts to resolve them. Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef met Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Sunday, the first high-level meeting since an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing July 12 killed five Israelis in the town of Netanya.

"We want to coordinate as much as we can to save trouble and save time," Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres told The Associated Press on Sunday. "But we are not desperate."

The Palestinians are growing increasingly frustrated and concerned that Israel is only interested in preventing attacks during the pullout and is not committed to resolving the other issues, which are of great concern to them.

"We are 23 days away from the evacuation, and they still don't know what they want," said Diana Buttu, a legal adviser to the PLO who has participated in many of the coordination meetings.

One of the hurdles is that the pullout was designed as a unilateral move.

When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unveiled it a year and a half ago, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was still alive and the two sides were mired in unrelenting violence. Arafat's replacement, Mahmoud Abbas, is seen as a more acceptable partner, and Sharon decided to coordinate the pullout with him.

But there is also strong international pressure, including from the United States, for Israel to help make a Palestinian-ruled Gaza a success, and Israel has no interest in watching its neighbor turn into a desperately poor terror haven.

Abbas is hoping a coordinated pullout will boost his domestic standing and justify his policy of negotiating with Israel. Hamas, the strongest challenge to Abbas, claims its attacks are driving Israel out.

There has been some movement. Israel has told the Palestinians they may start building a seaport, a project that will take several years. However, Israel balks at reopening the Palestinian airport, which would only take a few months.

Israel fears militants could smuggle arms over the border or through the ports.

Israel appears likely to allow the Palestinians to shuttle trucks and buses between Gaza and the West Bank and to consider allowing either a rail link or a sunken road to be built as a more permanent connection between the two, separated by about 25 miles of Israeli territory.

But other issues remain undecided. Most pressing is what will happen to the settlers' greenhouses and the rubble from their homes after the pullout. Israel wants the rubble to stay in Gaza or be buried in Egypt, but the Egyptians and Palestinians have expressed no interest in taking it.

"A lot of this may come together in the coming days, because ultimately both sides have an interest," Peres said to AP.

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