JERUSALEM (Reuters) - With Israeli troops poised to quit Gaza, Vice Premier Shimon Peres said on Saturday peace talks after the withdrawal were unlikely unless the Palestinian Authority proved it was capable of controlling the territory.
A pullout ending a 38-year-old military presence could begin as early as Sunday, pending an Israeli cabinet vote on whether to destroy synagogues still standing in Gaza's 21 demolished Jewish settlements, and be over in less than 24 hours.
But Peres put a damper on international hopes the withdrawal could kick-start negotiations on Palestinian statehood envisaged by a Middle East peace "road map" that has been stalled by nearly five years of violence.
"The Palestinians must demonstrate they are capable of controlling Gaza. If they do not demonstrate that, it will be very difficult to resume the negotiations," Peres, an architect of interim peace deals with the Palestinians, told Israel Radio.
Underscoring the challenges Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas faces from powerful militant groups, some 25 gunmen from his Fatah faction took over two government offices in the central Gaza Strip to press demands for jobs, witnesses said.
The incident was the latest example of lawlessness in the impoverished coastal strip where 1.4 million Palestinians live.
Palestinians are watching with a mixture of joy and scepticism. They fear Israel is trading tiny Gaza for a permanent hold on much larger swathes of the occupied West Bank where 245,000 settlers live.
"For the first time in the history of the Palestinian people, they are being given the chance to rule completely a territory with defined borders," Peres said.
"Who in the world will pay money (in international aid) or help the Palestinians if terrorism rules in the Gaza Strip?"
READY TO ROLL
The Israeli army blew up its last military posts in the Gaza Strip on Friday. Troops were waiting in and near their armoured vehicles for the green light to roll into Israel.
Military sources said the withdrawal, following on the heels of 8,500 Jewish settlers evacuated last month, would take less than 24 hours.
But Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said on Friday the pullout, which had been slated to begin on Sunday, could be delayed a day if the cabinet decides the 25 synagogues in the former enclaves should be demolished by the army.
It is an emotionally charged issue for Israelis worried that the Jewish houses of worship might be desecrated by Palestinians if left intact.
Mofaz told Palestinian television in an interview broadcast on Friday that Israel would declare the end of its military rule in Gaza after the pullout.
Palestinians, however, say Israel's withdrawal cannot mark the end of occupation in Gaza unless they are free to travel to and from the West Bank and operate air and sea ports, issues that officials are still discussing.
"We will not turn Gaza into a prison. It will be possible to leave and enter Gaza, and its roads will be open," Peres pledged in the radio interview.
Gazans are expected to take to the streets in celebration after the Israelis leave. The Palestinian Authority's official celebrations will have to compete with parades by militants claiming victory over the Jewish state.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza)
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