Rebuilding Gaza

September 18, 2005

PALESTINIAN euphoria over the end of Israel's occupation of the Gaza Strip devolved into robust expressions of sectarian loyalty, a looting spree of settlement synagogues and greenhouses and a wild surge of crossings into Egypt. It's been 38 years since Israeli troops took control of the Gaza Strip and prime seaside land was seized for Jewish settlements, leaving the majority Palestinian population confined to a few dusty towns and several squalid refugee camps.

A celebration of Israel's departure was expected. But the unruliness that followed the last Israeli's exit was unfortunate and undermines Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' pledge to create a model, civilized Gaza. Now is the time for Palestinians to unite under Mr. Abbas and build the society and state they want on this sliver of sand.

Palestinians deserve the freedom they have so long desired. They have waited decades for the opportunity to govern themselves and should proceed purposefully in that direction, resisting any other enticements by the religious and nationalist factions in Gaza. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade all want to claim credit for the Israeli withdrawal. Gazans must realize that, like it or not, the international community is going to evaluate their aspirations for statehood on what happens in Gaza.

Palestinians need to unite to redevelop this most densely populated and impoverished area. With housing, roads and other infrastructure in disrepair, there is much work to be done. That's why the looting of the former Israeli greenhouses, where Jewish settlers had built a thriving vegetable and floral business, was particularly disturbing. Middle East envoy James D. Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president, had helped raise $14 million to buy the properties from settlers and give them to the Palestinian Authority for much-needed jobs. The looting has made the future of the business there uncertain.

Mr. Abbas and other Palestinian officials know what's at stake. They have vowed - repeatedly - to impose order in Gaza. Palestinian militants should follow the example of the Irish Republican Army and voluntarily disarm; if not, Mr. Abbas must follow through on his promise to seize their weapons.

The priority has to be rebuilding Gaza. Palestinian officials have drawn up an ambitious but essential list of 45 housing, water and infrastructure projects. Pledges of financial support from the European Union, Germany, Japan and the U.S. Agency for International Development must be forthcoming so the projects can get underway and Palestinians can begin improving their land, the lives of their families and the prospects for an overall peace.

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