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'Vacuum' fear as Israelis get ready to leave: Doubts over security threaten deadline

EVERY DAY a school bus with heavily armed guards leaves the small Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip to take children to school at the larger settlement of Gush Katif five miles down the road. The bus must pass two Palestinian refugee camps.

And every day Palestinian merchants living in Khan Younis camp travel to do business in Gaza City, passing through several Israeli checkpoints, and close to Gush Katif.

In recent days the Jews of Netzarim and the Palestinians of Khan Younis have watched the Israeli preparations for withdrawal, due to start on Monday. A large fence is being built around the Gaza Strip. New watchtowers are being erected around the settlements and stronger barricades have been built at checkpoints. A light aeroplane swoops low over the area, plotting sites for military redeployment.

Neither the Jewish settlers nor the Palestinians, however, have any idea what law will prevail on the roads after Israeli wEithdrawal on Monday. They have no idea where Palestinian jurisdiTHER write errorction will end and Israeli jurisdiction begin. Will Israelis still patrol all the roads in the Gaza Strip, to protect every Jewish settler? Where will the Palestinian police be able to operate?

'Nobody has told us what is going to happen. We don't know where the soldiers will be or where it will be safe to drive. We are still hoping and praying that none of it will happen,' said Laura, a mother of three living in Netzarim.

Due to security concerns, the 180 Jews of Netzarim are fast becoming one of the most serious obstacles to peace in the current negotiations. To protect this isolated settlement, Israel is insisting on extending its 'enclave' well beyond the area that Palestinians are prepared to tolerate.

Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, disclosed yesterday that Israel had about 14,000 soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza, which is four times its military strength on the Lebanese border and in its self-declared security zone in south Lebanon. Troop numbers are usually a military secret and the unusual announcement appears designed to calm security fears.

With extremist violence, aimed at undermining the Israeli-PLO accord, continuing to escalate, there is a growing nervousness on both sides about the legal and security vacuum that is to be left behind, particularly in the volatile Gaza Strip, as Israelis begin to roll back the forces of military occupation.

Under the first stage of the peace process, Palestinians are about to be granted 'self-rule' - a nebulous status that falls well below 'sovereignty'. Until elections are held there will be no clear source of authority in the Palestinian areas. It is nervousness about security that is causing fears that Monday's deadline may not be met.

Yossi Beilin, Israel's Deputy Foreign Minsiter and one of the main architects of the accord, said yesterday that the 13 December deadline was 'a target date for concluding the negotiations. It will not be the end of the world if we don't meet it'.

Under the peace agreement, signed in September, security arrangements after withdrawal appear straightforward. A 'strong' Palestinian police force will arrive in the areas to look after internal 'Palestinian security' - a euphemism for clamping down on Palestinian militants. Meanwhile, the Israeli army will remain responsible for Jewish settlements and for the border crossing points.