Leaving Gaza

February 4, 2004

There is no better symbol of Israeli determination in the face of long odds than the tiny enclaves populated by about 7,800 Jews who are surrounded by about 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Nor is there a better symbol of Israeli obstinacy than its maintainence of these settlements at great cost in lives and military resources for little if any benefit.

The Gaza settlements are a daily provocation for surrounding Palestinians, an ever-present flash point in the ongoing Mideast conflict, a certain way to keep tensions at a constant boil. The Israelis who live in Gaza are under relentless threat; guarding them is a heavy drain on Israel's army. Settlers must be escorted in bulletproof buses or armored transport vehicles just to make a trip to the grocery store or dentist. These settlements make no sense.

Appearing to acknowledge this reality, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Monday that he has issued orders to plan for the removal of 17 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. Sharon couched his move in terms of his pledge several weeks ago to unilaterally separate from the Palestinians if there is no progress on the U.S.-backed road map peace plan.

Skeptics of Sharon abound. Many doubt that he will make good on the promise to dismantle most Gaza settlements. They note that he spoke of "planning" an evacuation, not ordering it, and that he has set no timetable. Others theorize that he's trying to divert attention from a corruption probe that could bring his indictment.

Whatever his motivation, Sharon has raised a crucial issue that Israelis must confront: If Israel wants peace, many if not all of the settlements--not only in Gaza but the West Bank--must be removed.

The hawkish Sharon, known as an architect of the settler movement, faces considerable opposition from hard-liners who view a Gaza withdrawal as a devastating retreat. They're wrong. Voluntarily leaving Gaza not only enhances security for Israelis, it erases a major friction point with the Palestinians.

Indeed, evacuating Gaza may be a relatively safe move for Sharon: A recent poll showed about 6 in 10 Israelis favor uprooting the Gaza settlements. Far more difficult would be the dismantling of many West Bank settlements, which many Israelis consider their biblical birthright.

The settlements remain a clear obstacle to peace. So far, however, Israel has done little but appease the hard-liners. Last October, for instance, it announced plans to build new homes in the West Bank even as it pledged to abide by the road map that calls for freezing settlements.

Ending the Gaza outposts would be, at least, a start. It would show Israelis--and the world--that the government is willing to take painful unilateral steps in search of secure borders and peace.

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune