After Gaza

August 21, 2005

THE VOICES raised in the Israeli settlements across the Gaza Strip last week were enraged and bitter. Accusatory and hateful, they rang out in protest and prayer to admonish their fellow Israelis - "Jews don't expel Jews." But the uniformed soldiers on a most difficult assignment completed the mission, emptying most of the 21 settlements without serious injury, ahead of schedule and in accord with the government's order. It was a testament to the Israeli army's professionalism, its soldiers' humanity and the resilience of the Middle East's only stable democracy. It went admirably well.

What follows now, beyond demolishing settlement buildings and turning over the land to the Palestinian Authority, is less certain. The restrained and watchful pose of Palestinians in Gaza allowed the evacuation to proceed safely. They should be as deliberate in developing the land and governing this coastal strip of 1.3 million people. And they deserve a commensurate amount of cooperation from the Israeli state.

As emotionally divisive as it was for Jews, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to end Israel's 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip was the right one, and a majority of Israelis understood that. The Gaza settlements had become a military and financial drain on the government. But their communal and economic life had flourished over three decades. Encouraged to settle the area by Mr. Sharon and others over time, the residents saw their expulsion as a betrayal - some Palestinians recognized that too.

The religious among the settlers refused to leave and their supporters - reinforcements from the West Bank and elsewhere - helped chart a course of civil disobedience that, once televised, would leave many Israelis shaken. They succeeded at that in their orange bands of protest, even bringing to tears some of the stoic soldiers sent to remove them.

But the Gaza settlers and their children who will one day serve in the army must remember that they are citizens of Israel. Israel's strength resides not only in its religious conviction and stewardship of the land, but also in its commitment to the rule of law.

It's the latter that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his government must establish in the early days of Gaza's self-rule. That means policing militant groups, securing Palestinian rights and strengthening civil society. On that foundation, a state can grow.

Mr. Abbas has much work to do; rebuilding houses and businesses in the former Jewish areas is the least of it. The Gaza Strip can't exist as a closed settlement or a protectorate. If it is to thrive, accommodations must be reached on transit routes to the West Bank, access to its port, operation of its bombed airport and other essentials. As fully as Mr. Sharon recognized the necessity of relinquishing the Gaza Strip to ensure Israel's future, he and others should realize that a secure future requires fostering a stable, prosperous life for Palestinians. Gaza is the place from which to unfurl the road map to peace.

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