- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 21, 2005

JERUSALEM. — As the last Israeli jeep emerging from the Gaza Strip passed them, two Israeli soldiers shut a border gate last Monday and secured it with a padlock, ushering in a new era in the Middle East.

New eras are ushered in relatively often in the region as it lurches from war to peace treaty to political assassination to insurrection. This time, however, the appellation seems particularly appropriate as, with the click of that lock, Palestinian Arabs held a patch of land for the first time that not only bore their name but that they ruled.

The region between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River had been referred to as Palestina since the fifth century B.C. but the Arabs who have lived in the land since the seventh century A.D. and adopted its name were never sovereign. They answered over the centuries to rulers in Damascus, Istanbul, London, Cairo, Amman, and, since 1967, Jerusalem.

With Israel’s withdrawal, the Palestinians of Gaza are now their own masters, albeit in a tiny corner of historic Palestine.

The question confronting the region is whether they can form a stable society and a stable state. Initial signs are not promising but it is still too early to draw conclusions.

Gaza’s first postoccupation days were spent in celebration but also in looting razed Israeli settlements, torching abandoned synagogues, and smashing through border barriers to meet relatives and shop on the Egyptian side of the border.

Most Israelis are prepared to accept these actions as letting off steam after 38 years of occupation. Of greater concern is the view of Palestinian society in repose. The Palestinian Authority (PA) headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, 70, has thus far proved incapable of enforcing law and order, the basic obligation of any government. More than a score of armed groups hold sway in the Gaza Strip, making mockery of the far more numerous PA security forces. The militants have ignored Mr. Abbas’ call to hand in their weapons, or at least not display them in public. Particularly grating is that many of these groups are affiliated with the mainstream Fatah movement, headed by Mr. Abbas himself. While PA officials speak of peaceful relations with Israel, militants vow to continue fighting it to the death.

The PA security apparatus’ bankruptcy was dramatically demonstrated last week when a company of masked men, arriving in armored cars, dragged former security chief Moussa Arafat from bed in the middle of the night and shot him dead in the street, just a few hundred yards from Mr. Abbas’ house and the headquarters of the PA’s Preventive Security Service.

Of no less concern than the security chaos is the ruined economy. Some 81 percent of the 1.3 million Gaza residents live below the poverty line, according to the CIA world factbook. Gaza has one of the highest annual birthrates in the world, 3.8 percent, and unemployment of nearly 50 percent, an explosive combination.

Before outbreak of the intifada five years ago, more than 100,000 Palestinians found work in Israel. But after years of suicide bombings, it will be a long time before Israel opens its gates again to Palestinian workers on that scale.

The situation is not hopeless. To stabilize the region, the international community is prepared to invest heavily in Gaza and in a future Palestinian state that would include the West Bank. So are private investors, including Palestinians living abroad. Palestinian officials speak of turning the Gaza Strip into a Hong Kong or Singapore. The strip is smaller than either (360 square kilometers versus 1,092 and 697) and so is its population (1.3 million versus 7 million and 4.2 million).

But Palestinians are known for their entrepreneurial talents, which have made them welcome in the past in Kuwait and other parts of the Arab world where such talents are in short supply. That world, and Israel too, could make important contributions to the Palestinian economy.

For all the good will, however, there are few parties willing to invest money and hopes in a political entity whose hallmark is masked militants parading with grenade launchers and whose principal export is suicide bombers and promises of jihad.

After the jubilation wanes over Israel’s departure, as it will very soon, Palestinian society will confront a clear choice — continuing the struggle against Israel or, for the first time, the even more formidable task of getting a life.

Abraham Rabinovich is author of “The Yom Kippur War.”

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