all the sources of tension between Israel and the Palestinians,
few are as frustrating as the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
Among one million impoverished Palestinians, many of them refugees
from the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, 7,500 Israeli Jews live in 21 communities,
dominating vast portions of the land and water on the parched, densely
packed seaside strip. To protect them, the Israeli government has
crosshatched the area with roads exclusively for the settlers' use
and garrisoned whole military units there, hampering and interrupting
Palestinians' movement and daily life.
This is so
frustrating because the tension could be easily removed: the Israelis
could move inside their sovereign state a few miles away. This is
a step long advocated by the Israeli left and supported by Israeli
public opinion. The right blocked any talk of carrying it out.
has changed. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he plans to remove
the settlers from Gaza. His surprise announcement, made first to
a columnist for the newspaper Haaretz who had been summoned to his
house, and then in public, marks a turning point. Even if Mr. Sharon
suddenly lays down new conditions or resigns in a growing scandal
of bribery allegations, a vital degree of sanity has been injected
into Israeli political debate. The architect of Jewish settlement
in the occupied lands has publicly declared that at least some settlements
has made promising statements before and has done little to follow
them up. But his plans now seem increasingly clear. He is aware
that Jews and Arabs are reaching parity in the combined populations
of Israel and the occupied lands, and that only by withdrawing from
Palestinian territory can Israel remain a Jewish and democratic
he does not go far enough. Mr. Sharon wants to leave Gaza and tiny
bits of the West Bank, perhaps trading back an Israeli Arab town,
and call it a day. This will not do. For a Palestinian state to
be viable, it will have to be made up of the entire West Bank and
Gaza, with small adjustments.
When the Labor
Party first discussed a peace deal with the Palestinians more than
a decade ago, it was labeled "Gaza First" because that was where
the evacuation would begin, before it moved to the West Bank. The
idea remains valid. This time, too, it will work only if what is
contemplated is Gaza first.