Gaza's moment:
What happens in the withdrawal will be pivotal

Friday, August 12, 2005

The next few weeks, when the Israelis attempt to carry out the withdrawal of their forces and settlers from Gaza, need to be a period when moderation and calm prevail.

Those two words -- moderation, calm -- don't normally characterize, of course, relations between the Israelis and Palestinians, nor developments in the Middle East in general.

The process that has already begun is based on a decision made by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and ratified by his Likud-dominated government. Extraneous bits of foam, the political equivalent of what the space shuttles sometimes shed, have peeled off the Israeli government as the withdrawal has moved forward. Defections have included, notably, ex-Minister of Finance and political ambulance chaser Benjamin Netanyahu, who hopes that the process will go badly and that he will then be able to profit from the internal chaos that might ensue if Mr. Sharon's Gaza project fails.

What is occurring is the withdrawal of some 8,500 Israeli settlers from 21 communities in the 25-by-6-mile Gaza Strip. It is home to 1.3 million Palestinians; borders on Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea and has been illegally occupied by the Israelis for nearly four decades, since the 1967 war.

The Gaza withdrawal is not unprecedented in Israeli history. The Sinai peninsula, home to some 5,000 Israeli settlers, was handed back to Egypt as part of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord in 1982. But a lot has changed since then.

The evolution of the Palestinian Authority toward becoming a government has proceeded. Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat has died, to be succeeded by the more confidence-inspiring Mahmoud Abbas.

The idea is that the Israeli withdrawal will give the Palestinians greater autonomy in Gaza than they have hitherto enjoyed anywhere else. If Palestinian government goes well there, the result can be considered a step forward on the so-called road map to resolution of the Middle East conflict. The plan envisages the putting in place of two states, Israel and Palestine, which would live side by side in peace and security. The road map was devised by the United States under President Bush's leadership, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

Dancing around the potential tinderbox that Gaza constitutes at the moment, pocket lighters in hand, is a nasty mix of Israeli and Palestinian extremists, who somehow see the failure of Prime Minister Sharon's withdrawal plan to their advantage. On the Palestinian side are some of the usual suspects: Hamas, Islamic Jihad, other nihilist car-bombers and the like. On the Israeli side, it is bitter-end settlers, demonstrators from Brooklyn and elsewhere and some Israelis who think that whatever the country has been able to occupy it should keep.

Standing in opposition to these elements, attempting to implement the decision of the government of Israel, are the Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli citizens who see Prime Minister Sharon's decision to withdraw the settlers and forces from Gaza as a reasonable step toward achieving long-term peace and security for Israel.

Moderation and calm must be the watchwords of the day. The Israeli Defense Forces and the security forces of the Palestinian Authority are there to see that the extremists do not succeed in blowing up the process at this key juncture. Hold your breath and cross your fingers.

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