The 2-Minute Briefing: What now for the Gaza Strip?

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The Independent Online

Nearly half of the 8,500 settlers had left by last night. Israel hopes all the settlers will depart in the next few days, along with the hardliners who came from outside Gaza. But Israeli soldiers will remain behind to demolish the settlers' houses.

Does that mean the Palestinians will be in charge after that?

Not exactly, because many crucial issues have still to be resolved. Some are likely to be resolved quickly, including the movement of goods out of Gaza into Israel proper, and the Israeli presence on the Egyptian border. But other issues are more intractable. Israel has approved the construction of a Gaza seaport, but this is expected to take 18 months. Israel will retain control of Gaza's airspace, although the government says the Palestinians "can plan" to reopen the airport. The Israelis are talking of an "interim" 18 months while the post-evacuation regime is put in place.

What does that mean?

A period of political uncertainty is beginning, which could be exploited by Hamas, the extremist political rivals of the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. Mr Abbas has got to demonstrate the lot of the Palestinians in Gaza is improving if Fatah wants to do well in the parliamentary elections, scheduled for January. Otherwise, there could be a gradual shift of public support towards Hamas, which would be viewed with alarm by the Israeli government. Hamas has claimed credit for forcing the Israeli withdrawal. Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, must now deal with a challenge from his Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu.

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