If the unilateral disengagement plan put forward by the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, succeeds, settlers and soldiers could start leaving the Gaza Strip as early as the end of the year.
Yasser Arafat: losing influence in the Gaza Strip
It will leave a power vacuum which every Palestinian group will scramble to fill. The planned elections, which will take place in the spring at the earliest, are for municipalities. Their outcome will reflect where the sympathies of Gazans lie and will be an indication of how life might be without the Israelis.
One of the reasons for the repeated cancellations of the polls has been Yasser Arafat's fear of a strong showing by the Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas, who enjoy considerable popularity.
Hamas and two other radical groups called on Palestinians yesterday to register and to use their votes. Hamas said it regarded elections as a way to "lay the foundations to secure a dignified life, free from injustice, corruption and the abuse of rights", by which they mean the excesses of the myriad security organisations which are accused of systematic extortion and oppression of the people they are supposed to protect.
All three groups boycotted the only legislative and presidential election so far. It was held in 1996, two years after the launch of limited self-rule under the Oslo peace accords.
The territory has recently descended into chaos amid widespread disillusionment with the rule of Mr Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Yesterday militants seized the local government offices in a southern Gaza town for several hours, demanding that the authority must do more to help families left homeless by an Israeli military operation last week.
There are about 30,000 policemen, border guards, military and civil intelligence officers in Gaza, grouped in commands whose responsibilities often overlap. Rivalries have led to bloodshed.
Reformers accuse the security organisations of colluding with some of the area's most powerful families to flout planning regulations and grab more of the Strip's overcrowded acres. Local people accuse them of making false arrests and demanding bribes to free their victims.
For some, the elections and the prospect of withdrawal provide an opportunity to implant the rule of law on Gaza's sandy soil. "This is a second chance for us," said Jamal Abu Habel, a senior Fatah official. "We want to have the best people in place before the withdrawal - the honest and the qualified."
The internal dynamics of Gaza do not favour the status quo. The security forces are unable to dominate the militant groups which have been waging war on Israel for the past four years and which effectively control large parts of the area. Tensions between the two have prompted predictions of a mini-civil war once the Israelis have gone.
But everyone in Gaza seems relieved that an end to the occupation may be in sight. Hamas has declared that once the Israelis have gone it will cease offensive operations in Israel. "They don't want to give the Israelis any excuse to come back," said a source close to the organisation.
Edited by Lottie, 06 September 2004 - 12:43 AM.