The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon watched every second of the withdrawal of the Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip over the last few days.
In our hearts we were feeling for the first time the joy of seeing the end of a long period of destruction, occupation and the suffocation of the economy and the lives of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
The withdrawal has given credibility to our struggle.
It has given hope that we can achieve the goal of a liberated Palestine, not only in the Gaza Strip — which we see as a small first step — but in the West Bank and with our capital in East Jerusalem.
The withdrawal has also given an injection of hope that we can win the right of return for all Palestinians living in refugee camps and in the diaspora.
At the same time we are hearing the plans and projects proposed by Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. He is saying Israel will maintain control of the borders, the skies and the sea around the Gaza Strip.
In reality Sharon wants to transform the Gaza Strip into one great prison for 1.3 million Palestinians.
We make a distinction between the withdrawal of settlers and an end to the occupation. The occupation has not ended.
There are many more steps to be taken and the international community still has to pressurise Israel to implement United Nations resolutions that call for an end to the occupation.
We also have to encourage all the Palestinian factions to unite and continue to pursue all means of resistance, including the armed struggle and the second intifada [uprising].
The US and Israel say it is now the turn of the Palestinians to “repay” the removal of the settlers by disarming the resistance and dismantling our organisations.
This is an attempt to ferment fracticidal war among the Palestinians and is the illusionary hope of the Israelis. They will not succeed.
We should not accept the Israeli demand that the Palestinian factions disarm — the right to self defence is an integral part of the the right to self determination.
We will continue our struggle to liberate our lands and push for the dismantling of the settlements in the West Bank. We have to cut out the cancer that is spreading in our lands.
We should take this opportunity to begin building the nucleus of a democratic Palestine — a state free of corruption — even in this small area of the Gaza Strip.
We also hope that this will provide the spur for the Palestinian diaspora to begin investing in the Gaza Strip and improve the lives of our people.
The road is long. There are many steps still needed to achieve our freedom. The withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is only a small step on this road. Our liberation is not yet complete.
But this is the first time the Zionists have had to retreat from their project — to expel the Palestinians and replace them with settlers from across the world, and create a “Greater Israel” on our historic lands.
They are in retreat. This can be like a snowball that will get bigger.
In the future all the steps by Israel will be the steps of retreat — withdrawal followed by withdrawal — and all our steps will be towards our liberated homeland.
This is a small victory for the intifada, for the resistance and for our steadfastness — despite all the misery and catastrophes we have had to endure at the hands of the Israeli occupation forces and the settlers.
Now we have some space. We can breathe and our children can go to the beach without fearing sniper attacks by armed settlers.
This is welcome. But this does not mean we have abandoned our dreams of freedom, our dreams for the integrity of our lands, our dream for a liberated West Bank and for East Jerusalem to be our capital.
Sharon would like to go to the United Nations Security Council and say the occupation is over, while some of the Arab and European regimes claim this is all part of the Road Map to peace in the Middle East.
If they want peace they have to negotiate for all the “final status” agreements, not only fixing the frontiers but the status of the West Bank, Jerusalem and the right of return for the Palestinians refugees.
Without this there cannot be peace.
We want to accumulate these small victories to realise our final dream. But the struggle continues, and we urge all our supporters across the world to keep putting pressure on the Israelis.
Souheil Natour is a Palestinian lawyer and journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. He is a leading member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and head of the Palestinian human rights association in Lebanon.