Facilitating Palestinian rule

According to polls, almost half of Palestinians oppose Egypt’s offer of a security role in Gaza, fearing it would only serve Israeli interests. Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki is reported to have said, "We see considerable Palestinian concern that what Israel is proposing would leave them in a suffocating Gaza ghetto while it consolidates its main settlement enterprise in the West Bank."

Even if that were the case, how would it differ from the present state of affairs? The Palestinians may be right not to take Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s rhetoric at face value, but if they believe that Sharon is posturing or not serious, then they really don’t know him. Those in the Israeli political structure, among Americans who have known him, and in the administration in the White House and State Department are all convinced that he is serious. And if proof were needed, Sharon’s willingness to abandon his right wing, to sacrifice his majority in the Knesset, and to make common cause with the Labor Party should be proof enough. Sharon will withdraw the settlements from Gaza, and the Palestinians will have to deal with that reality.

The Palestinians have two choices. They can allow the existing situation in Gaza of violence, crime in the streets, and internal fighting to deteriorate further. In this case the scenario described by Shikaki will become fact. Or they can begin the process of building the institutions of a Palestinian state as the model for the West Bank, an undertaking that could win solid international and US backing. This will not happen unless: 1) the al Aqsa Brigade’s apparent demands regarding corruption in the Palestinian Authority are met; 2) Arafat is willing to back off and let a reform process take place; 3) the Palestinian leadership agrees to restructure Palestinian security forces and bring them under the control of the PA’s cabinet; 4) external donors terminate direct funding of armed factions and leaders and channel all assistance through transparent international and PA institutions; and 5) the PA gets the support and help it needs to stabilize the internal security situatio! n. That is where Egypt comes in.

It is instructive to see which organizations are most opposed to an Egyptian role in helping the Palestinians develop an effective internal security apparatus. Not surprisingly, the objections have come from Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and the Popular and Democratic Fronts, among other armed factions. It is clear that these parties fear an effective security force which could control the lawlessness (and funds generated thereby) on the streets, prevent any faction from shooting its way into power, and guarantee the fairness of a democratic electoral process which would represent the will of the people. Perhaps these factions are afraid that they will lose the power to force their will and their vision of Palestine on others.

It is not at all clear that a majority in Gaza wants a theocracy, which would appear to be the model Hamas wants for the state, nor is it clear that Gazans want a radical government modeled after the PIJ philosophy, tilting against the windmill of a one-state solution to the continuing detriment of the Palestinian population. The Palestinians must see that if there is any prospect for a one-state solution it could only be born of two states, uniting for common and agreed purposes, and developing over time, with the full consent of both populations.

The Egyptians do not relish the idea of a collapsed Gaza on their borders; it would be an invitation for terrorists who just might turn their attention toward Egypt. So it seems that Egypt has made a legitimate and sincere offer of help. This is not, after all, Nasser’s Egypt, and this is not pre-1967 Gaza, nor will it ever be again. Egypt has offered a limited role, one that can strengthen the Palestinian Authority, restore security in Gaza, and prevent its dissolution into "a suffocating Gaza ghetto" on the verge of a civil war.

The Palestinians are right to worry about what happens next in the West Bank. The World Court opinion on the fence may be momentarily gratifying, but advisory opinions will not change the wall/fence by one meter or make it any less likely to be completed. The reality is that the fence will be completed, and then we may have several Palestinian "ghettos". But what happens in those "ghettos" will make all the difference as to whether they remain ghettos for the foreseeable future or become the starting point for building a viable and agreed final settlement.

That is the premise of the Bush administration’s policy and, according to officials in the White House and State Department, the United States is willing to put its resources and political power on the line to make sure that this is the path taken in the future. The choice, however, will come down to the Palestinians themselves. It is time to retire the old saying that "the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."