Israeli pull-out passes the point of no return



A month ago settlers would have demonstrated and right-wing politicians protested: in a military camp beside a wood on the main road into Nablus, the largest Palestinian city on the West Bank, Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers are building a joint office, above which wave the Palestinian and Israeli flags.

In a fortnight the last Israeli troops will be out of Nablus, which will probably become the future headquarters of Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman. They have already evacuated the prison at the southern end of the city. To avoid anything which looks like a retreat, the Israeli withdrawal is purposely gradual and surreptitious.

The change is no less dramatic for that. "It is why Rabin died. The right wing were desperately trying to derail the process," says one senior Israeli official. "There was a rapid escalation of violence in October, because they knew we were passing the point of no return if we withdrew from the Palestinian cities." No Israeli government will be able to return.

Israeli settlers sense this. For the hard core, perched in hilltop settlements like Eli and Kfar Tapu'akh, south of Nablus, the conquest of the West Bank in 1967 was the divinely ordained return to Judea and Samaria. The belief that Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, was about to give up the God-given Land of Israel was at the heart of decision by Yigal Amir to kill him.

In the wake of the assassination there is little the extreme right and the settlers can do to resist. The Israeli army is pulling out ahead of schedule, and its last men will leave Nablus on 14 December, Bethlehem four days later and Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, at the end of the month. There are almost no protests, because the right is trying to distance itself from the extremists. Even the 5,000 hardcore settlers who the government believes are willing to use violence against other Israelis are keeping silent.

Palestinians are more sceptical than Israelis that they are seeing a real handover of political power. "In some ways it is a dream come true," says Nader Sa'id, a sociologist at al-Najar University in Nablus."But people here are in an ambivalent and uncertain mood." They still fear that the Oslo accords are a hoax, and that they will be penned into isolated Bantustans, with Mr Arafat playing the role of Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Such is the speed of Israeli disengagement that a power vacuum has developed in Nablus. It is being filled by Ahmed Tabouq, who claims to be a member of Fatah and leads a group of 20 to 30 gunmen. In the summer he called frequent strikes, punished dissenters by knee-capping and made himself the most powerful man in the city.

Mr Tabouq is more than a local gangster taking advantage of the confusion between the Israeli departure and the return of Mr Arafat. "Some people see him as the last reminder of the radicalism of the intifada," says Mr Sa'id. "Five of my students from Balata refugee camp [on the outskirts of Nablus] came to me after I mentioned Tabouq in class and said: 'He is our hero'."

There is no doubt who will win the election for the new 82-member Palestinian council on 20 January. Fatah has been steadily getting the support of 43 per cent of the 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since 1993. Support for the Hamas Islamic movement and the secular opposition has dropped sharply because they were seen as being against the Oslo agreement, but offering no alternative.

The Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian towns and villages of the West Bank over the next month is the most radical change in relations between Israel and the Palestinians since the area was captured in the 1967 war. Such a convulsion would normally create uproar but, with the Israeli opposition paralysed and the Palestinians sceptical, it is taking place in near total silence.

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