Op-Ed: They're leaving Gaza, so what's next?

By Ziad Asali
August 17, 2005
The Daily Star

As Israel begins its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank, it is clear that this presents, for all those committed to an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a moment of truth. If we are to eventually have two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace, it is imperative that all parties play their part to ensure that the disengagement is marked by a successful transition to orderly and effective Palestinian rule.

Palestinians will still be surrounded on all sides by the Israeli military, but they will have to administer significant areas of territory with a population of over a million people. The degree to which the Palestinian leadership succeeds is likely to play a key role in determining how far other parties are willing to go to help Palestinians realize their goal of creating a viable, fully independent state in the Occupied Territories, which is also the key to peace in the region.

Whatever their varying agendas, motivations and visions of the future might be, all those committed to peace have a huge stake in ensuring that this transition is as smooth as possible. This will not be a simple task.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) will have to perform state-like functions, without many of the institutions, powers and means available to truly sovereign entities. Although important reforms are under way, the PA's agencies, including the security services, have been systematically weakened from within and without, and undermined by mismanagement and corruption. These nascent Palestinian national institutions began to take shape during the 1990s, but many were seriously damaged or degraded during the conflict that raged after September 2000.

The PA, therefore, will require serious and substantial foreign assistance to enable it to perform the functions it is about to inherit. American support is vital, not just in the form of financial aid but also technical, social and governmental assistance. Arab and European states as well as Japan must do their part to empower and support Palestinian institutions that begin to govern effectively.

Coordination on the part of the Israeli government with the PA is crucial. The disengagement was originally conceived as a unilateral measure, but the fact that it is, at last, being implemented in a coordinated manner demonstrates that Palestinians and Israelis have no choice but to deal with one another. Israel surely understands how important it is that Gaza avoid sinking into chaos or falling under the control of extremists. It can ill afford to be perceived as playing an obstructionist role and hindering efforts by moderates like PA President Mahmoud Abbas to take control.

There will be opposition, probably some of it violent, from Israeli extremists who wish to see the process fail. The parallel internal struggles within both Israeli and Palestinian societies against extremism may be painful, but are unavoidable.

For the transition to succeed, it will be necessary to give Palestinians grounds to feel that the Gaza disengagement is the beginning of a process that will lead to independence and statehood. Ordinary Palestinians must feel they have a stake in making the transition work, otherwise the siren song of violent resistance may prove irresistible, especially as radicals credit armed struggle with producing the withdrawal.

Many Palestinians fear, given Israel's continued settlement activity, especially in and around Arab East Jerusalem, and the now-openly acknowledged "political" considerations informing the route of the Israeli "security barrier" snaking through the West Bank, that time is running out for the potential creation of a viable Palestinian state.

To address these serious concerns, and to make sure that further progress will be possible after the withdrawal is completed, the United States and the international community should reinvigorate the "road map" to peace. Amending the language of the road map is necessary since some requirements and lapsed deadlines are now moot. The revisions would show that the world remains committed to the plan as the outline for an end to the conflict. The road map remains indispensable because it is the only document outlining a path to peace that has been agreed to by all the parties. It provides a substantive basis to measure what has been accomplished, and what is yet to be done, by all sides.

If the disengagement goes relatively smoothly, the PA proves able to effectively govern the areas transferred to its control, and the international community recommits itself to the road map, Israeli and Palestinian elections should be able to bring to power people committed to a serious peace deal.

A coordinated Gaza disengagement and successful transition to Palestinian rule, which are collective responsibilities, can set the stage for serious negotiations to create a Palestinian state and finally end the conflict. While collective failure may entrench a volatile and untenable status quo, success should help to finally lead the Middle East out of its perilous course.

Ziad Asali is president of the American Task Force on Palestine. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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