The unilateral Israeli decision to withdraw troops and evacuate settlers from the Gaza Strip has thrown a monkey wrench in the works for all parties. Palestinians and other international players have been especially confused as to how to proceed. The answer is: through negotiations -- not one-sided actions.
Despite months of Palestinian and international entreaties, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon steadfastly refused to negotiate, coordinate or reveal plans for the disengagement and what is to follow. In the months leading up to the withdrawal, the most commonly heard observation in the West Bank and Gaza was that Israelis negotiate among themselves about the future of the Palestinians.
Israel's decision to disengage from Gaza independent of any larger bilateral or international framework is unlike any in modern history. Even its decision to leave southern Lebanon in 2000, while taken unilaterally, at least tacitly involved the United Nations. The withdrawal was in keeping with Security Council Resolution 425, and it was the international body that demarcated the Blue Line and verified Israeli withdrawal to positions behind the de facto border.
The confusion, of course, is due to the lack of answers to numerous questions, major and minor. Are the Israelis planning a respite from further withdrawals, as some Israeli politicians have suggested, or is quitting Gaza part of the road map, as the Quartet (Russia, the European Union, the United States and the United Nations) insists? The issue of what happens the day after the withdrawal (it looks as if that is about a month down the line) has been left unanswered. Will the provision of electricity and telephone service, as well as the wheat and rice that come exclusively from or through Israel, continue?
And what kind of state, or precursor to a state, will Gaza be? Will Gazans be allowed to move freely to and from the West Bank? Will the borders with Egypt be free? What about the airport and the future port? What kind of taxes and customs regulations will be applied? Will Palestinian airspace be liberated? The Israeli army tore up the runway that President Bill Clinton had inaugurated, and all attempts since to rebuild it have been rejected. Will Palestinians be allowed to leave and return to Gaza without Israeli approval? Will others be allowed to enter Gaza without Israeli visas?
Confused or not, Palestinians, for their part, will be expected to answer questions -- in deeds, not just in words -- about their ability to build a modern, pluralistic state. How will the Palestinian body politic deal with the growing power of the Islamic movements, which undoubtedly will expect a significant share of power in post-withdrawal Gaza?
The international community also will have to answer some key questions.
According to the Palestinian Economic Council for Reconstruction and Development, annual per capita income in Gaza continues to be roughly $700, a fraction of the $16,000 Israelis earn.
In the absence of relatively well-paid jobs, what will happen to the lines of unemployed Gazans? The potential flight of job seekers into Israel is only one problem that all concerned must think about.
More immediately, if Gazans cannot feed their families, the recurrence of cross-border violence, if not a third intifada, will be only a matter of time.
While the economic situation in Gaza is a critical issue, the future of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be determined mainly by the next steps in the peace process. Permanent-status issues concerning borders, the West Bank, Jerusalem and refugees must be dealt with bilaterally. Any serious observer of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must acknowledge that there can be no unilateral solution to these issues.
As for the peace process's multilateral guarantors, the United States and its Quartet partners, they have so far failed to provide even the most basic facts regarding Israel's withdrawal or how it relates to the road map agreed on in 2003. They cannot continue to sit on the sidelines.
Washington's decision to call Israel's unilateral move part of the road map has failed to convince many Palestinians. The prevailing opinion among Palestinians is that the road map will be put in a deep freeze once the Israelis complete their Gaza withdrawal.
But the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, their leaders, and the international community must all respond to the challenges that will follow.
Most important, the future of the conflict and the chances for genuine peace in the region will depend on understanding the limits of offensive military power, of defensive resistance and of unilateralism. Serious face-to-face talks, in accordance with international law and with the help of the international community, are the only way forward.
The writer is a Palestinian journalist and the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.