The stakes rise in Strip poker: A grim message from Gaza

THEY ARE widening the road from Tel Aviv to the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, and nobody can figure out why. Few Israelis would dream of going to Gaza. And nowadays the Palestinians are often penned in, as they are now, under curfew. Taxi drivers held up at the roadworks pass the time with a joke: 'It's either the new connecting corridor they're building to link Gaza to the West Bank, ready for Palestinian autonomy. Or it's to make way for an Israeli invasion of Egypt.'

After last week's events, the first suggestion seems almost as unlikely as the second. Autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza Strip looks further off than ever.

But fading hopes for peace have spread new fears about Gaza. The murder of the Israeli border guard, Nissim Toledano, by Hamas activists has heightened those fears. Hamas was spawned in the narrow shanty alleys of Gaza refugee camps, and many of the 400 deportees who are now languishing in no man's land in southern Lebanon came from from the Gaza Strip. The question that is being asked by more and more Israelis is: why not just get rid of Gaza without waiting for the peace negotiations to succeed? The idea that Israel might simply cut and run is not a new one. But it has been gaining credibility.

Four members of the government have called for a debate on the issue. Chaim Ramon, the Health Minister, said unilateral withdrawal could speed up the peace process. 'Gaza is different from Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). We have no interest in being in Gaza long-term,' he said.

The Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, said in August that he hoped Gaza would 'drop into the sea', but he has opposed unilateral withdrawal.

In 1987 the intifada erupted in Gaza and then spread to the West Bank. Now it is heard every day in the militant cries of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which has one clear aim: to kill off the state of Israel once and for all and set up an Islamic state. Massive Israeli resources are deployed to maintain the military occupation and keep the lid on the area.

Those who support handing back the Gaza Strip argue that, unlike the West Bank, it has little biblical importance to Israel. As a result, there is only a handful of Jewish settlements on the strip. But, more important, they say, since the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, it no longer has any strategic importance.

Those who oppose disengagement say that handing over Gaza, except as part of a negotiated settlement, would be interpreted by the Arabs as weakness. 'I do not see any sense in giving something away without getting something back,' says Shlomo Gazitt, the former head of Israeli military

intelligence.

What the Israelis fear most is the type of regime that might replace Israeli occupation. Hamas and the PLO have been engaged in often-violent turf battles in the Gaza Strip all year. Now Hamas appears to be winning, particularly with the support it has gained since the murder of Nissim Toledano. And Hamas does not talk peace.

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