Israel has begun its unilateral withdrawal of troops and evacuation of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. This is the first time that settlements have been dismantled from land that Israel occupied in the third Middle East War (1967). There have been reports of small-scale clashes between settlers and security forces, a fatal shooting of a Palestinian by a settler, and a rocket attack in the south. But no major, bloody incident has been reported. The pullout is expected to be completed by the middle of next week.

Although Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced a ceasefire at their summit meeting in February, sporadic clashes between the Israeli military and Palestinian extremists have kept the official ceasefire in constant danger of collapse. The only way to open the road to peace lies in the two sides building mutual confidence. The decision of the Palestinian side to engage to some extent in joint operations — for example by deploying security forces — with the Israeli army so that the withdrawal proceeds smoothly is a move in the right direction.

The biggest hurdle in promoting the “road map,” which calls for the coexistence of the two states of Israel and Palestine, is the settlement problem. Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is not based on an agreement with Palestine, but is a unilateral move to promote the separation of the two states. The pullout, therefore, may certainly be a step forward in the peace process, but it does not readily get that process on track.

At the same time that it is withdrawing from Gaza, Israel is expanding settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan River and going ahead with the construction of a separation barrier. Although some settlements in the West Bank are also being withdrawn at present, in practice Israel is said to seek legitimacy for merging large settlements in the West Bank in exchange for the Gaza pullout. This is a major reason why Palestinians are criticizing the Israeli move as a ruse.

Mr. Sharon has been negative toward holding peace talks. He has laid down the condition that Palestinian extremist groups must first decommission their weapons and disband. His position is understandable, but at the same time it should be noted that Israel’s policy of consolidating the occupied West Bank invites the suspicions and distrust of Palestinians, and is an obstacle to peace.

One reason for Israel’s unilateral withdrawal is the heavy economic burden of maintaining the settlements. Furthermore, a prevailing view has been that there is no future for 9,000 Jewish settlers living among 1.2 million hostile Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Under such circumstances, a unilateral withdrawal may be the only viable step toward the de-escalation of violence and stabilization. Another reason for the withdrawal is strong political pressure from the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which is promoting the peaceful democratization of the Middle East as a whole. Mr. Sharon reportedly has had to push the pullout plan against opposition from the public and from within his own ruling party.

Mr. Abbas has said the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is just a first step toward the end of the occupation of the West Bank. But a unilateral withdrawal does not apply to the West Bank, where 200,000 Jewish settlers live.

Extremists in such Islamic fundamentalist groups as Hamas have described the pullout as a victory for the anti-Israel resistance movement and have declared that they will continue the armed struggle against the occupation of the West Bank. Such opinions conflict with the standpoint of Mr. Abbas, who argues that the cessation of attacks will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Mr. Abbas’ policy is to promote the decommissioning of arms by encouraging the political participation of the extremists. Hamas has made gains in local elections since the end of last year and has scored resounding victories in Gaza. For this reason, in order to avoid a conflict in the Palestinian camp in Gaza following the Israeli pullout, the Palestinian Authority requested that Hamas join the Cabinet. Hamas refused.

There is the danger that the armed struggle, or a power struggle within the Palestinian camp, could become an excuse for Israel’s legitimizing a return to a hardline course. Next January, Palestine will hold a parliamentary election for its Legislative Council. Hamas should seriously consider participating in politics with this election.

The international community has been actively involved in Middle East peace in the past. Countries, including the United States as a mediator, and international organizations must continue to promote assistance toward the realization of peace and stabilization between Israel and Palestine.

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