The New York Times

The Gaza Strip: Go Your Own Way

"Life's Good." That's the message proclaimed on huge billboards in the Gaza Strip these days—albeit by an importer of European refrigerators. It was also a message conveyed by last weekend's pictures of Palestinians crossing from Gaza into Egypt, no longer scrutinized by Israeli soldiers.

Life seems good in Israel, too. Terrorist incidents are down to one every three months, tourism is booming again and high-tech investors are back in droves. The election of a union chief, Amir Peretz, to head the Labor Party brings fresh leadership to one of Israel's major parties and a new emphasis on the needs of those long neglected in Israeli society. And the departure of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from Likud, the other major party, holds out the hope that elections in March could produce a centrist coalition under his leadership that would finally lead Israel to peace with the Palestinians.

But beneath this surface lurks another, far less pleasant reality. Gaza today is ruled not by the Palestinian Authority but by competing warlords, armed gangs, security chiefs and terrorist organizations. There is no independent judiciary or rule of law. Educational and social institutions have collapsed. Unemployment is as high as 50 percent. Three months after Israel's withdrawal, there are few signs of renewed economic activity: no new housing projects and no new efforts to rebuild roads and basic services devastated by four years of intifada.

In this environment, it is little wonder that the militant Islamic group Hamas, with its combination of terrorist derring-do and efficient social services, is gaining in popularity in Gaza. If elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council are held in January as scheduled, Hamas is widely expected to take half the seats in Gaza, putting it in a position to dominate politics there.

Four years of intifada terrorism have inured Israelis to this reality. For them, the appeal of the Gaza disengagement was its unilateral separatism, which in one move allowed Israelis to rid themselves of responsibility for 1.3 million Palestinians. If Hamas comes to rule over a failed, terrorist state in Gaza, Israelis will simply close the border crossings, which even now barely function, and rely on the border fence and military deterrence to protect themselves. The same logic underlies Mr. Sharon's break with Likud. He knows Israelis want to separate from West Bank Palestinians, too, but that the Likud apparatus will oppose that move even more vehemently than it opposed the Gaza disengagement.

Mr. Sharon swears allegiance to the Middle East "road map," the plan promoted by the quartet of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia for an eventual peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. But the vision he holds out to his people is not one of a negotiated peace, but rather of an Israel with a robust Jewish majority and an undivided Jerusalem in its hands. And the prime minister is already actively turning that vision into reality by building a security barrier around Jerusalem and the major West Bank settlement blocs. When it is completed, a re-elected Sharon is then likely to respond to growing Israeli public pressure for another unilateral step by withdrawing settlements from the Palestinian heartland and leaving Palestinians in control of some 70 percent of the West Bank, while retaining Israeli control of Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. This Israeli urge for separation has a counterpart in Gaza, where some residents now argue for placing Gaza's interests ahead of those of the West Bank.

Increasingly, Gazans resent the weak, crony-infested leadership in Ramallah, which they fear will constrain their independence so as not to be left alone in Israel's grip. Arguing that Gaza has always been the crucible for critical developments in the Palestinian national movement (the first intifada began there in 1987), some Gazans suggest that the time has come to create their own independent state in the part of Palestine that has now been liberated.

American diplomacy has not yet taken account of these rising separatisms. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Jim Wolfensohn, the Middle East envoy for the quartet, remain focused on turning the Gaza disengagement into a springboard for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But their admirable efforts are hobbled by the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and the lack of interest from Israelis looking out for their security first. Fostering negotiations will grow only more challenging when January elections bring Hamas into the Palestinian political mainstream with its terrorist abilities intact.

American interests might be better served by mustering international support for the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza first. Egypt is already quietly adopting the role of custodian in Gaza, putting Egyptian colonels in control of Palestinian border brigades, training the security services and leaning on terrorist organizations to cease their activities. With Egypt in the lead, the international community could help rebuild the institutions of governance in Gaza and reconstruct its economy. At the same time, Mr. Wolfensohn could focus his considerable energies on helping Gazans reorient their trade through Egyptian ports, across a border that is no longer controlled by Israel, and on generating foreign investment in Gaza.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration could prepare to negotiate with the next Israeli government over the extent of its withdrawal from the West Bank and the Arab suburbs of East Jerusalem. American negotiators should pay close attention to how a West Bank withdrawal will affect the contiguity of Palestinian territory and its connection to East Jerusalem.

This process is not a substitute for hammering out a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, which could be facilitated once a Palestinian state in Gaza extends its writ to the newly liberated areas of the West Bank. Rather, such steps would constitute a recognition that practical separation—between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Gaza and the West Bank—may serve as a precursor to peace. Only when Egyptians and Jordanians put their own separate interests first was peace forged between those countries and Israel. Perhaps the time has come for Gazans to do the same.