Courtesy Reuters

The Forgotten West Bank

A DULL DISENGAGEMENT

Contrary to most predictions, Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last August was a dull affair, accomplished ahead of schedule and with little violence. Since then, as the Palestinian Authority (PA) has assumed control of the area, a relative calm has persisted.

The United States and the other members of the Quartet (the group, which also includes the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia, that sponsored the "road map" for Middle East peace three years ago) have used the time to follow up on the withdrawal by focusing on two secondary projects: helping the PA build a functioning government in Gaza and pushing Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to disarm Hamas, the militant organization that has spent the last decade entrenching itself as the dominant force in the territory.

American policymakers and their colleagues in Europe and at the UN see securing Gaza as a key step toward achieving Palestinian sovereignty. As President George W. Bush said on August 23, 2005, "There must be confidence -- confidence that the Palestinian people will have in their own government to perform, confidence with the Israelis that they'll see a peaceful state emerging." If Gaza becomes a viable political and economic entity ruled by Palestinian moderates, the thinking goes, Israel and the PA will soon return to the negotiating table and extend the self-rule experiment to the West Bank -- and a full-fledged Palestinian state will then quickly take shape.

This logic, however, rests on misguided optimism. The orderliness of the transition from Israeli rule in Gaza seems to have convinced Washington and its allies that the PA, if pushed hard enough, could fairly easily solidify its rule there, supplanting Hamas. Indeed, the withdrawal has made Gaza the new focus of the Middle East peace process, with the Quartet deciding that this area should get the PA's undivided attention and the lion's share of a new, multibillion-dollar aid package that is scheduled to be disbursed in early 2006.

To focus attention and money

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