An End And A Beginning

A Palestinian boy runs with a Palestinian flag in front of the Israeli settlement of Morag, on the outskirts of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2005.
CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.

With the removal of 8,500 Israeli settlers almost complete, Israel's occupation of Gaza has effectively come to an end. With the world watching the closing chapter on television, Israeli forces evicted the most reluctant of Gaza's settlers — and some of their supporters from the West Bank who joined them for the occasion — in scenes that mixed emotion and determination on all sides.

At its core, however, what is taking place is the implementation of a political decision made by Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. Sharon's strategy has always been doing what he thinks is needed to make Israel secure. His chief tactic for more than 20 years had been building and expanding Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank

Now, after more than four years of fighting Palestinians during the Intifada, any argument that protecting and maintaining Israel's 21 settlements in Gaza as necessary for Israel's security had become unsupportable. Sharon's tactical response, given the breakdown in peace negotiations, was to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza.

Whether this move will strengthen Sharon's desire to hold onto more West Bank settlements, as some have suggested, is a question for another day. The main result of Israeli withdrawal is its impact on the Palestinians who live in Gaza and on Palestinian political leaders who soon will have to bear responsibility for running the place.

Arguments about whether the Palestinians "drove" Israelis out or whether they "withdrew" remain for historians to worry about. The issue now comes down to political control and who wields it among the Palestinians. Can Mahmoud Abbas, the elected President of the Palestinian Authority, exert leadership in Gaza? Can Abbas stand up to Hamas? Will Hamas and Islamic Jihad stop their terrorist activities and become part of the mainstream political fabric in Gaza?

In a region where leaders who take strong stands have to worry not only about the next election but also about staying alive (Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin) it is an open question whether Mahmoud Abbas can do the job.

The Bush administration and the international community are taking some steps to get the Palestinians ready to govern Gaza but no amount of outside help will be enough if local leaders can't come together for the benefit of the 1.3 million who live there, most of them in poverty-stricken conditions.

Washington has had a 3-star U.S. Army General, William Ward, in the region for months trying to reshape Palestinian security services. The former President of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, is on the scene working on political and economic issues.

Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian officials have also been meeting to work out critical issues related to border crossings, the movement of Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank and the opening of an airport and a seaport.

To illustrate just how difficult it can be to solve seemingly easy problems, it took Jewish- American businessmen to come up with $14 million in private money to prevent greenhouses in former Israeli settlements from being torn down.

This compromise allowed 4,000 Palestinians to have jobs growing flowers, fruits and vegetables in the already existing greenhouses, rather than spend millions more to tear down and rebuild the same infrastructure. This solution was needed because the Palestinians refused to allow U.S. government aid money to be used for the same purpose.

The struggle for political control between various factions in Gaza — Hamas, Fatah and others — is to be expected, even welcomed. At some point, however, someone needs to lead.

"All politics is local" is a familiar phrase in American politics and it holds true in Gaza as well. Who's in charge of health care, education and who is providing jobs will soon become the most important questions for Gazans. Simply blaming current troubles on the area's former occupiers will not be sufficient if Palestinians are ever to become citizens of a state called Palestine.

Charles M. Wolfson