Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last week turned to Cairo for help in securing the area after Israeli troops and settlers leave. Egypt offered to send military experts to help retrain Palestinian security forces but attached a series of conditions on its involvement, including reform of the Palestinian security branches and a halt to attacks on Israelis.

Officially, the Palestinian Authority welcomed Cairo’s involvement, although Palestinian officials have privately expressed misgivings about the foreign involvement in their affairs.

Palestinian militant groups are seeking assurances that they will play a role Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal. Representatives of the largest militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, met in Beirut on 21 June. They issued a statement aimed at Egypt and Jordan, who offered to take up a similar security role in the West Bank: ‘We express our dismay and surprise over a security role for certain Arab parties in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank,’ the statement said.

‘Our people expect the Arab nation to act according to the logic of supporting the Palestinians and not the logic of ‘security,” it said. ‘This has flipped the situation, making the problem the Palestinian people, and not the Israeli occupation.’

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zohri, said there was ‘nothing new’ in the statement. He said his group still had close relations with Egypt, but that ‘no one but the Palestinians can give any commitment to the Israelis.’

Cairo gave no reaction to the statement. Top Egyptian envoy Omar Suleiman will meet Israeli and Palestinian officials this week.

Sharon’s proposal includes a complete pullout of Gaza, home to 7,500 Israeli settlers and 1.3 million Palestinians, and a withdrawal from four isolated West Bank settlements.

Sharon suffered another setback on 21 June to his plan to withdraw from Gaza by September 2005. The opposition Labour Party backed a no-confidence motion in Sharon’s minority government, warning that its support for the Gaza plan should not be taken for granted.