Of Fences, Arms, and Trust

Heat finally turned to light for the Palestinians and Israelis this week.

Well, some light. Enough to lead them out of a mutually imposed darkness and start taking baby steps to rebuild trust.

Both sides felt the pressure to act. For one thing, nearly three years of violence and counterviolence have left a punishing lesson that neither side can win peace that way. Hamas finally felt the economic pain of the people it claims to serve. And Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon admitted the occupation (as he called it) of the West Bank was not sustainable.

Then the American campaign to stop the export of terror from the Middle East pushed President Bush to put heat on both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, with help from Europe, to move quickly toward ending the region's most controversial conflict.

And, of course, the US invasion of Iraq concentrated the thinking of Arab states, such as Syria, persuading them that support of Palestinian militants doesn't have much of a future.

These first steps are the most fragile. A call by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups for a temporary halt to suicide bombings and shootings of Israeli civilians can be seen as historic: It came with no conditions. But without astute action soon by the Palestinian Authority to neutralize Hamas - either by disarming it or coopting it into politics - radical Palestinian elements could easily find an excuse for another attack, and again puncture peace hopes.

Israel's withdrawal of forces from the Gaza Strip, and perhaps several West Bank towns, as well as opening up a key road for commerce, show a good-faith effort to reward Palestinians for moving toward peace.

But Israel must also show restraint in case of another attack - and indicate a willingness to return most of the West Bank eventually by moving portions of a separating wall it is building. And a steady release of Palestinian prisoners will also be a gesture of Israeli intent that deserves Palestinian reciprocity.

The United States, too, must rush financial aid to the Palestinian Authority to set up an alternative welfare system to the one run by Hamas. That will give tangible proof to Palestinians of the merits of peacemaking.

The US-backed road map has now defined a real road. It will take steady building and unflagging maintenance by the US president to keep any potholes from making the road useless.

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