By the time this editorial appears in print, the projected Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip and a small area in the northern part of the West Bank will ideally have been completed.
The great unknown, nevertheless, is whether the following lines would have been correctly based on the assumption that the disengagement will take place, or whether the disengagement will have been postponed as some people expect or wish - two different scenarios that come to mind. Other eventualities are also possible, such as a partial withdrawal; or a massive Israeli military operation in Gaza as a response to a Palestinian attack; or a drastic, unexpected event in some other part in the region which will impact on Israel's decision to disengage, leading to further delays in implementation.
Irrespective of which scenario will eventually unfold, the issue I'll be addressing is the principle of disengagement. The contention here is that, like it or not, disengagement is at present the only available course.
Palestinians have a great mistrust in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's intentions. What they see on the ground is the daily growth and expansion of Jewish settlements (colonies) in the West Bank; they witness the intensive work carried out to change the image and status of Arab East Jerusalem, its encirclement with Jewish neighborhoods, and its total isolation from the rest of the West Bank. And they watch the uninterrupted construction of the separation wall, which is tantamount to a unilateral dictation of the final borders between Israel and its neighbors, in contravention of the resolution of the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
In short, the Palestinians see very little to foster any hope in a conceivable positive development any time soon. The predominant feeling is that Sharon will never change his ideology. His disengagement plan is viewed not as a political step in the right direction, but as a trade-off between Gaza and the West Bank. The disagreement between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the different Palestinian resistance groups is over how to present this matter to the Palestinian people. As a result of the Israeli reluctance to coordinate the disengagement with the PA, other Palestinian organizations are trying to take credit for the plan and to claim it as a victory of their own. Recently, though, some form of military coordination between the PA and Israel has been taking place as a result of American diplomacy and, to a certain degree, of the Quartet.
The big question marks for almost everyone are going to be what will happen during the disengagement process and, more importantly, what will happen the day after? What will be the fate of the evacuated Jewish settlements? Whose banners will fly over the properties and lands that will be left behind? Will they belong to Hamas and its militia, or to the PA and its police force? Intensive efforts are being made on the part of the PA to build up the capabilities of its security forces, and to send a clear message to all Palestinian factions that it will not countenance any attacks against Israelis during the withdrawal, or any attempts to control the land - private or public - that was confiscated by Israel for various purposes, including for the building of Jewish settlements, and that will be left behind.
Whatever reasons and logic lie behind Palestinian fears and suspicions of Sharon's intentions, their leadership understands that disengagement is the only game in town. President Mahmoud Abbas outlined his policy very clearly and firmly in his July 16th speech to the nation. There should be one Authority and one legitimate weapon - the weapons of the Palestinian security forces; there is no room for multiple authorities or unofficial armed groups. The real challenge to Mr. Abbas and his government is to translate this policy into action on the ground. U.S. officials confirm that steps have been taken in this direction, though they still ask for more. The withdrawal will be a stiff trial for the capacity of the PA. It is important to emphasize that its success does not rest in the hands of the PA alone, but in Israel's as well, and in the simultaneous implementation of their respective commitments.
The disengagement from Gaza will be a test case. In any event Gaza must not become a prison for 1.5 million Palestinians. Israeli security fears should not be used to justify a continued Israeli siege on Gaza Strip. The PA committed itself to maintain the seize fire and enforce the rule of law. Egypt helped to train the Palestinian police and mediated between the PA and Islamic militant factions (Hamas and Jihad) to guarantee that there will be no military attacks by these factions against Israeli targets during the Israeli withdrawal . In addition the Egyptian police will deploy along the Egyptian borders with Gaza to prevent weapon smuggling from Egyptian territory into the Gaza Strip to be used later against Israel. This will give an answer to a major Israeli security concern.
Opening the Egyptian border for the free movement of persons and goods, on the other hand, and developing the Gaza port and airport is an essential step towards the revitalization of a ruined and impoverished society. The freedom of movement of persons and goods between the Gaza Strip and the outside world should be guaranteed to allow the people of Gaza to rebuild their shattered economy and to create jobs. The incentive would be to achieve prosperity, not to deal in violence.
The free movement of persons and goods between Gaza and Egypt should not, and will not, be an alternative to free movement to and from the West Bank. The territorial and political connection between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank cannot be stressed enough. There is a genuine fear on the Palestinian side that Sharon wants to end with Gaza. It is important that the disengagement from Gaza and the northern part of the West Bank be followed by similar constructive steps in the rest of the West Bank, such as an immediate cessation of all expansion of Jewish settlements and of the building of the so-called separation wall. Palestinians should be allowed to move freely in their own land. This is an Israeli obligation as stipulated in the first phase of the Road Map and, of course, in accordance with the resolution of the ICJ. Rebuilding the destroyed infrastructure and severely damaged economy of the Palestinian people will be the right move in the right direction.
The withdrawal from Gaza should not be the first and last step; instead, it should be a move towards re-energizing the Road Map and the point of departure for a comprehensive settlement to the conflict. Keeping the momentum towards ending the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, should be the major task of American and international diplomacy in order to achieve a just and lasting political settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Only such a settlement will lead to growth and prosperity for the two peoples: Israel and Palestine.