February 4, 2004

Gaza First

Of 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.

Suddenly, that 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 must go.

Mr. Sharon 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 state.

Unfortunately, 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.

© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Co.