With the start of disengagement of Israel from Gaza less than six weeks away, the differences between the Israeli and Palestinian Authority approaches could hardly be any greater.
On the Israeli side, the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is carefully preparing for Aug. 15 -- the day it will begin to remove 8,500 men, women and children from 21 settlements in Gaza and more than 500 from four settlements in the northern West Bank. To bolster the sagging fortunes of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Sharon, who transferred the West Bank cities of Jericho and Tulkarm to Palestinian security control in the spring, wants to do that in Bethlehem, Ramallah and Qalqilya before the withdrawal begins.
On the Palestinian side, for all of Mr. Abbas' stated good intentions about making peace with Israel, he hasn't done much. Palestinian security forces remain in disarray. Lt. Gen. William Ward, the American soldier who four months ago was tasked with the responsibility to help the Palestinians rebuild their security forces, last week described his experience in trying to help reorganize a "dysfunctional" system of command. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that only about 22,000 of the 58,000 persons in the security forces actually bother to show up for work. But on paper, even 22,000 security officers should be quite capable of taking on Hamas and the other rejectionist groups. One reason the security forces have failed so badly, Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Youssef candidly told the Palestinian Legislative Council recently, is that they include terrorists and gangsters responsible for creating the lawlessness that has enveloped the West Bank and Gaza.
Instead of disarming terrorists, Mr. Abbas has tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade groups like Hamas to take their gunmen into his security forces. Earlier this week, Hamas rejected Mr. Abbas' offer to join his government. It has responded to his efforts to halt the anti-Israel violence by firing rockets at the Gaza settlements and Israeli towns in the Negev Desert.
Even more ominously -- both for Mr. Abbas and the Israelis -- Hamas has taken advantage of the Israeli decision taken earlier this year, to help Mr. Abbas, to refrain from offensive military operations against Hamas.
The Israel withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank next month will be extraordinarily difficult. The Israeli military is bracing for an extensive campaign of civil disobedience by settlers. The terrorist attacks and threats emphasize the remarkable risks Mr. Sharon is taking to achieve historic compromise with the Palestinians.
By Elaine Donnelly
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