Gaza pullout and peace

In the days ahead, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are scheduled to remove the last of the 8,500 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, dismantle its own remaining installations in the Strip, and leave. What will life be like then for the Strip's 1.38 million Palestinians?

One forecast: They'll be overjoyed to travel the 25-mile length of the Strip without having to go through the hated IDF checkpoints, and to regain access to coastal areas from which they have long been banned.

Palestinian leaders used to predict that, once freed from the military rule Israel has maintained for 38 years, Gaza could become "like Singapore." That now looks very unlikely, for three reasons:

• Israel's promised evacuation of the Strip - and four small Israeli colonies in the northern West Bank - comes nowhere near a final resolution of its long conflict with the Palestinians. (Gaza's land makes up only 5.8 percent of the total area of the occupied territories to which the Palestinians now lay claim.) In the absence of a final-status peace, it's very improbable that Gaza, a key incubator of Palestinian nationalism, will be calm.

• Even after the pullout, Israel plans to retain control of key trade chokepoints between Gaza and itself, and (far less legitimately) between Gaza and the outside world. Gaza would still be far from enjoying the full economic independence that lets Singapore prosper. Israel would retain the same kind of controls that apartheid South Africa exercised over its Bantustans. Opportunities for friction would multiply.

• The Palestinians' own internal politics are in flux. The moderate, secularist Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, won a strong electoral victory in January. But facing diplomatic and political uncertainty, he postponed until January legislative elections scheduled for last month. The Islamist movement Hamas is expected to do well in them.

Israel's pullback from Gaza has its origins in a speech Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made in December 2003, when he proposed this "disengagement" as an alternative to the "road map" proposed by President Bush in 2002. Mr. Sharon's plan has two key differences from the road map. It seeks to pull the IDF out of Gaza only, while promising no troop pullback from the West Bank. And it's quite unilateral: Israel has never committed itself to negotiating any particulars of its pullback - with either the Palestinians, the US, or any of the three US allies that cosponsored the road map.

Since December 2003, by an amazing diplomatic feat, Sharon has won the acquiescence of all major world powers for this partial and dictatorial plan. Meanwhile, in the West Bank, his government has been strengthening its control over huge swaths of Palestinian land and the area's 2.2 million Palestinians. It has continued building the massive barrier that encroaches on Palestinian lands there. It has built housing and other facilities for new Israeli colonists throughout the West Bank, including in and around Jerusalem - a city as fiercely loved by Palestinians and their coreligionists worldwide as it is by Israelis and theirs.

At the diplomatic level, Sharon's government has steadfastly refused to re-engage with any of the discussions of "final-status" issues - Jerusalem, borders, the claims of the 4 million Palestinian refugees worldwide, or the status of the many Israeli settlements in the West Bank - that were on the diplomatic agenda in the 1990s.

All these Israeli actions have very seriously undermined the prospect that the Palestinians can build a viable, independent state alongside Israel any time soon - if ever. They've been undertaken in a period of great US financial support for Israel, and with no discernible action by Washington to try to keep the prospect of a viable Palestinian state alive. Members of Israel's militant settler community have succeeded in keeping much international attention on the fate of 8,500 Israeli settlers facing evacuation from residences that were illegal anyway under international law. But the fate and dashed hopes of 8 million Palestinians worldwide have been largely ignored.

I hope that the IDF's pullback from Gaza is successful and complete - it should have happened years ago. But it's only a first, tentative step toward ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The next step - for the US and all interested parties - must be to grasp the entire nettle of winning a comprehensive and sustainable Palestinian-Israeli peace. (Yes, implementation of this can certainly be in stages.)

The Gaza disengagement alone can never usher in peace. Any who think it can should recall the fate of South Africa's Bantustans.

Helena Cobban is writing a book on violence and its legacies.

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