A secure Gaza

October 10, 2005

Insurrection. Chaos. Turmoil. Anarchy. Any one of these words would do in describing recent events in the Gaza Strip. What with Palestinian security forces clashing with militants over control of the streets, the transition to self-rule has been overtaken by sectarian strife. A meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, their first since Israel withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza, won't have a chance of advancing the peace agenda if the dire security situation doesn't improve.

The meeting, expected this week, was brokered by Jordan's King Abdullah II to try to restart peace negotiations. But Mr. Abbas will enter the meeting significantly hampered by the lawlessness that has followed Israel's historic pullout. Mr. Abbas has brought some of this on himself, by refusing to move against Hamas and other Palestinian militants who have rejected the president's demand to disarm. Mr. Abbas continues to put his hope in a voluntary disarmament once Hamas participates in coming elections. But he has no assurance of that.

Security is critical to improving the daily lives of Palestinians, advancing the prospects for peace and achieving a Palestinian state. Mr. Sharon has said repeatedly he won't consider any other initiatives until Hamas, which espouses the destruction of Israel, and the other groups are dismantled. Mr. Abbas, in a recent televised speech, appealed to Palestinians for order. "People are saying this is a test for a Palestinian state," he said. "If we continue on this path, these people will say we don't deserve one."

But appeals aren't enough. Mr. Abbas has to bolster his security forces so they can act decisively against militants who violate a ban on the public display of weapons. Islamic militants should take seriously threats by Egyptian mediators to delay the Jan. 25 parliamentary elections if order doesn't prevail in the coming months.

Mr. Abbas, the Palestinians' chief negotiator before his election as president, has the skills to forge a peace deal with Israel. But first he must govern, and maintaining a safe and secure Gaza has to be his foremost priority. That's what President Bush will be looking at when Mr. Abbas visits the White House later this month. That's what's necessary if the millions pledged by the European Union to rebuild Gaza are to be spent. That's the way to push the peace process forward, with a stable, thriving Gaza as the driving force.

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