STATELESS IN GAZA
Since July 2004, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has faced its most serious internal challenge since it was established in 1994. A violent showdown in the Gaza Strip between competing nationalist factions-an "old guard" and a "young guard"-has threatened to destroy the PA and, with it, what little remains of domestic security and order after four years of uprising against Israel. The ongoing turmoil represents a critical danger, not just for Palestinian society and its dreams of a unified state, but also for Israel's plan to disengage unilaterally from Gaza-a plan the United States is counting on to revive the peace process and to regain much-needed credibility in the Middle East.
If Israel implements Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in the last quarter of 2005, Palestinian society will fragment even more, lose the benefit of unified representation, and very possibly lapse into bloody infighting. The Israelis will not get the security they want and will be forced to confront a Hamas empowered by the PA's collapse. Meanwhile, the Quartet-the United States, the UN, the European Union, and Russia-will find not only its "road map" to peace in tatters, but also that peacemaking is impossible without a strong, integrated Palestinian leadership. Continued Palestinian disarray thus affects all parties involved in the conflict. But it is not too late to change course: holding Palestinian national elections before Israel's withdrawal could prevent the chaos and help establish the foundations for a democratic Palestinian state committed to peaceful relations with Israel.
Sharon's withdrawal plan has exacerbated long-rising tensions within the Palestinian political community. When the al Aqsa intifada erupted in September 2000, it triggered dramatic changes in the Palestinian social and political environment. Weakened by Israeli retaliations and plagued by corruption and inefficiency, the PA speedily lost legitimacy at home and abroad. With this slide in popularity came serious internal divisions within the nationalist camp, the PA's core; the resulting power vacuum opened the way for lawlessness and
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