Unanswered questions

March 22, 2004

AS AMERICAN officials this week discuss Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposed unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Nabil Saoud and Mohammed Salem shouldn't be far from their minds. They are the Palestinian teen-agers who penetrated a security fence around the Gaza Strip and detonated a suicide bomb in the Israeli city of Ashdod.

Mr. Sharon's plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the strip along the Mediterranean Sea has the potential to strengthen Islamic militants operating in Gaza and further erode any authority Palestinian leaders hold there. If Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade continue to send suicide bombers from Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal, how will Mr. Sharon's security apparatus respond?

That's among the elemental questions a unilateral Israeli withdrawal raises.

Any move to end Israel's occupation of lands intended for a Palestinian state would be welcome under a negotiated settlement. But in the absence of an agreement, U.S. officials must get some questions answered before supporting Mr. Sharon's proposal.

Consider these: Where would Israel relocate the estimated 7,000 Jewish settlers living in Gaza? Would Mr. Sharon bar them from further populating the West Bank settlements? Would Israel continue to permit Gaza residents to work in Israel? Who would control the Gaza-Egyptian border? Access to the sea?

The Gaza Strip is among the most densely populated places in the world. About 1.4 million Palestinians live there, the majority of whom are impoverished refugees from previous Israeli-Arab wars. The economy in Gaza is nonexistent. If the Palestinian leadership sought to reopen the Gaza airport to create a new export market, how would Israel respond?

When a previous Israeli government withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in 2000 after a 22-year occupation, the pull-out saved lives on both sides of the border and removed the primary reason for the Islamic militant group Hezbollah's attacks. But southern Lebanon and Gaza are not necessarily analogous. Lebanon had a functioning government that operated with Syrian troops in the country and Damascus' influence over the militants in the south. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat makes his home in a security compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah; he has refused calls for his paltry security force to crack down on Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups.

With the U.S.-backed peace plan hopelessly stalled and Israel's war with Palestinian militants in its fourth year, Mr. Sharon proposed the Gaza withdrawal, he says, to reduce friction with the Palestinians. If the Bush administration supports the Sharon plan, that will radically shift U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has operated on the premise of a negotiated settlement rather than unilateral actions. In either case, the violence likely won't end - not as long as there are more Gaza teen-agers like Nabil Saoud and Mohammed Salem.

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