Who Controls Gaza?

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MARCO DI LAURO / GETTY IMAGES

A Palestinian woman flashes the victory sign as she celebrates the Israeli Army withdrawal from the Gaza Strip along with members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah

What is the legal political status of Gaza right now? Is sovereign control in the hands of the Palestinians, now, or do the Israelis continue to maintain ultimate control, as the Palestinians claim?

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon intends to tell diplomats and leaders he'll be meeting during the UN General Assembly that Israel's responsibility for the Gaza Strip was ended by the final withdrawal of its soldiers early Monday morning. The Palestinians don't accept that, because Israel maintains control over Gazas airspace and the sea. It also has partial control over the border crossing.

Water and electricity is supplied through Israel. The Israelis, however, are eager to show that, whatever the status of the legal disputes, the ball is now in the Palestinian Authority's court and President Mahmoud Abbas ought not to expect further serious peace talks until he clamps down on the terror groups in Gaza.

Who is in control among the Palestinians?

Gaza is in security chaos. Last week's assassination of Moussa Arafat, a nephew of Yasser Arafat and a security chief seen as deeply corrupt, showed the precipitous slip into fraternal violence that seriously threatens Abbas's hold on the Strip. This week, the mobs that burned the abandoned Israeli synagogues in the evacuated settlements illustrated how little control Abbas has over the situation in Gaza. There were Palestinian troops around the settlements, but they didn't prevent the riots.

In the next few weeks, the question of ownership of the evacuated land will become potentially quite violent. Ordinary Palestinians claim some of the land was originally their farmland and they want it back; some of them have secured the backing of local militia gangs to enforce their claim. Hamas and other factions, including some from Abbas's own Fatah party, claim a portion of the land as recompense for having — as they see it — chased the Israelis out of Gaza with their long campaign of violence. Abbas has signed a government decree that the land reverts to the Palestinian government, but no one's accepting that decision quietly.

How have the images of burning synagogues affected Israeli public opinion over the pullout?

Israeli public opinion hasn't been affected so much by the images of burning synagogues in the evacuated settlements. The synagogues were deconsecrated before the last Israeli soldiers withdrew. Still, Israelis are reminded of tragic episodes in Jewish history when they see a synagogue burning. Certainly, the synagogues have been a problematic issue. Many rabbis argue that it's forbidden for Jews to destroy a synagogue, unless another is being built. The chief rabbi of the army was able to find a rather hair-splitting justification for dismantling the synagogues entirely, which the army went to Israel's High Court to defend. After doing so, the army found itself undermined when Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz backed down and voted against the destruction of the synagogues in the cabinet last weekend. That's why the synagogues remained standing. Despite the shock and anger registered by Israeli political leaders after the burning of the synagogues, there's a general acknowledgement among Israelis on the street that, after 38 years of occupation, it isn't surprising — even if it's distasteful — that Palestinians would vent their anger on the last Israeli buildings standing in the settlements.