The long road to Gaza

February 27, 2005

WHEN JEWS settled the Gaza Strip, Ariel Sharon stood with them. When they built their first greenhouses, planted their first fields, he was there. He welcomed the first generation of Israelis born there and defended their homes against terrorist attacks. And he is the prime minister who has engineered their removal from that disputed land.

In recalling his 60 years of service to the state of Israel, Mr. Sharon said last week no decision had been more difficult than this. But difficulties await him still. Mr. Sharon's proposal to withdraw troops and about 7,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and four remote settlements on the West Bank in July will make history, a first in Israel's 38-year-old occupation of territory claimed by Palestinians.

In addressing world Jewish leaders last week, Mr. Sharon said he adopted the Gaza withdrawal proposal to ensure Israel's future as a Jewish democratic state. Getting rid of Gaza, with its teeming Palestinian refugee camps and Islamic militant strongholds, relieves Israel of a substantive military obligation and a demographic headache. It should be the first step toward establishing an independent Palestine, for without that, Palestinians could demand a one-state solution to this decades-old conflict. And that would surely spell the end of a Jewish Israel.

Mr. Sharon successfully pushed forward his plan like the battlefield general he once was - forcefully and on his terms. He refused to negotiate the Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinians, a unilateral action that this newspaper opposed. He put it before his contentious Cabinet, lost some hard-line ministers in the process, and teamed up with opposition Labor leaders to win government approval last week.

Ever the survivor, Mr. Sharon now faces the challenge of carrying out the plan. In the days ahead, the settlers whom Mr. Sharon championed for their courage and love of the land will seek to undermine him and sabotage the withdrawal. Cabinet ministers have been threatened. Some rabbis have urged resistance. Settler leaders are looking for ways to bring down the government through parliamentary means.

Mr. Sharon's plan isn't perfect. Through it, he has secured a stronger hold on the West Bank and built a security barrier that looks disturbingly like a fortified border even though this territory remains in dispute and subject to a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Citizens in a democracy are free to speak out, to protest by the thousands, even to resist. Israeli settlers have every right to oppose the Gaza plan, but if they try to scuttle it with violent and illegal means, they will undermine the only functioning democracy in the Mideast. And what then will they have gained?

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