By the evening of September 11 the last Israelis had left Gaza -- the final chapter in Israel's "unilateral disengagement" from an area which Jewish settlers had turned from a barren wasteland into a blooming oasis. A few hours later (was the date entirely accidental?), Palestinian vandals torched the synagogues which the departing settlers had left there, hoping that the Palestinians would respect the sanctity of the places of worship.
It was not to be: without the Palestinian policemen lifting a finger to stop the arsonists -- according to observers, often egging them on -- the synagogues had turned into ashes. Neither the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas nor any other Arab leader uttered a word of censure -- or even of sympathy.
The above act of barbarism does not bode well for the future of peace between Palestinians and Israelis; Israel, backed by a majority of public opinion, decided to leave Gaza and to remove the almost 9,000 Jews who lived there, for a variety of reasons -- not the least of which was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's determination, much criticized, among other things, because of its unilateral aspect, to re-launch the Palestinian-Israeli peace process which had expired as a result of the ill-conceived "Oslo" agreement and after the Clinton-Barak-Arafat summit at Camp David five years ago.
This may be the only case in history of a country voluntarily giving up part of its land, telling its people to abandon their homes and livelihood, in order to make peace with an enemy. Unfortunately, the response from the Palestinian side has been less than encouraging.
In spite of this, in his recent speech at the United Nations, Mr. Sharon went out of his way to reach out to the Palestinians; he called on them to "end the bloody conflict and embark on the path which leads to peace and understanding," adding that "the right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel does not mean disregarding the rights of others in the land," thus specifically endorsing Palestinian statehood -- and echoing President Bush's vision of a future democratic, viable Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel (though some may be reminded of Jonathan Swift's definition of visions: "the art of seeing things invisible").
That said, judging by the general chaos in the Gaza Strip after the Israeli hand-over, one cannot be blamed for harboring serious doubts about whether the Palestinians will in fact be able to establish and run their own viable state. Nor is it certain that such a future Palestinian state will indeed be peaceful and democratic, rather than turning into one more extremist, Islamist state promoting terrorism all around it. Though the Palestinian Authority has officially accepted the "roadmap" for solving the conflict, the very first phase of which should have been fighting the terrorist organizations, handing over illegal arms and altogether dismantling the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure -- nothing of this has happened so far.
On the contrary, additional arms have been smuggled into the Gaza area through the wide open border with Egypt, Mr. Abbas himself has declared his uncompromising aims to be identical with those of Yasser Arafat -- i.e. a complete Israeli withdrawal from its historic lands in Judea and Samaria -- making Jerusalem the Palestinian capital, and insisting on the so-called "right of return" of Palestinian refugees -- the latter being the Palestinian formula for destroying the Jewish state from within.
Official Palestinian television has encouraged Palestinians to perceive the Israeli disengagement from Gaza as a first step toward Israel's destruction. Even more worrying than Mr. Abbas declamatory fomentations, has been his complete failure to act against Hamas (though Hamas membership is only about 1,200, while the armed security forces of the Palestinian Authority number approximately 40,000 men). Quite the opposite, he granted them political legitimacy, while his prime minister went to Damascus, the home-base of many of the Middle East's terrorist groups, to sign an agreement which allows Hamas to keep its arms.
While some Hamas spokesmen, aware of the opposition of the United States to their participating in the planned Palestinian elections, have recently toned down their virulent anti-Israel statements, this shouldn't mislead anyone about the organization's real intentions. To quote Mahmoud Zahar, Gaza's Hamas leader (as reported in the Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat, published in London): "We do not and will not recognize a state called Israel. Israel has no right to any inch of Palestinian land. Let Israel die." When asked whether Hamas would resume its terrorist operations in Israeli towns after the withdrawal from Gaza, Mr. Zahar replied: "There are no Israeli towns. These are settlements." Not to be outdone, the Palestinians' "moderate" leader, Mr. Abbas has also said that "we will not rest until they leave from all our land" -- when Palestinian maps show "our land" as all of mandatory Palestine with Israel nowhere to be seen.
Some people thus suspect that what Hamas says -- others, including some self-declared "moderates," think -- and more specifically, that legitimizing Hamas was a deliberate act on behalf of Mr. Abbas to preserve the terrorist option for the future.
Similar to Yasser Arafat in his day he would then try to convince the world of his continued commitment to peace and diplomacy, blaming the violence on "uncontrollable" others and, of course, on Israel. He should be disabused of the notion that such stratagem can work -- and the sooner the better.
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