Bad Start in Gaza

Thursday, September 15, 2005

ONLY DAYS after the final withdrawal of Israeli forces, the Gaza Strip is on the verge of anarchy. Despite promises to impose law and order, the Palestinian Authority has allowed mobs of looters and armed extremists to rampage through former Jewish settlements, where they have burned or bulldozed synagogues left standing by Israel. Many of the valuable greenhouses that, with the generous help of international donors, were saved for use by the Palestinians have been stripped of equipment as police stood by and watched. Despite a formal agreement with Israel to maintain security, Egypt has allowed thousands of Palestinians to illegally cross its border, including rifle-brandishing militants. If it is not quickly checked, the disorder will destroy Palestinian hopes that the Gaza transfer will become a step toward statehood.

This week's events further undermine the claim of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he can impose democratic rule of law in Gaza without directly confronting armed extremist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Mr. Abbas keeps declaring that only Palestinian security forces will be allowed weapons and that "no one is above the law." But he also keeps shrinking from confronting the gunmen who have been parading through former Jewish settlements or punching holes in the border fence between Gaza and Egypt. "We are not going to tolerate chaos after today," Mr. Abbas declared on Tuesday. Yesterday, as the chaos continued, he instead canceled his appearance at a rally organized by his own administration.

Mr. Abbas's problem is in part one of weakness; it's not certain that the security forces loyal to him could impose order by force in Gaza even if he ordered them to. Egypt's failure is far harder to excuse. The government of Hosni Mubarak formally committed itself to send Egyptian troops to replace the Israeli army on the border between Gaza and Egypt and to maintain security. No agreement has yet been reached on opening a crossing, mainly because of Israel's legitimate security concerns. But Egyptian troops this week have allowed thousands of Palestinians to pass back and forth, urged on by Hamas fighters who have blown holes in the fence. Egypt announced that it would put a stop to the traffic by yesterday evening. According to news reports, the crossings continued.

The Gaza withdrawal should have been a step toward an Israeli-Palestinian settlement; instead, it could become a leap away from it. The big winner so far is Hamas, which rejects Israel's existence. In Israel, continuing disorder will give a boost to hard-line challengers to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the architect of the Gaza evacuation. As it is, Mr. Sharon probably will reiterate in an address to the United Nations today that Israel will consider no more territorial withdrawals or other concessions to the Palestinians until militant groups are dismantled. Unless Palestinian and Egyptian leaders take immediate steps to fulfill their commitments in Gaza, they will bear the responsibility for a new stalemate -- or worse -- in the Middle East.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company