TOPICS : When will Israel leave Gaza?

Ian Black

Ariel Sharon’s decision to put off Israel’s “disengagement’’ from the Gaza Strip is just the latest worrying sign that the path to peace with the Palestinians is going to be a lot bumpier than expected. Originally scheduled for July, the pullback has now been postponed to mid-August, after Tisha Be’Av, the fast when Orthodox Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians and Romans. This deference to religious sensitivities — by a secular prime minister — is a reminder that even for settlers drawn to Gaza by cheap loans and pristine Mediterranean beaches rather than any ideological pull, abandoning it is another calamitous, historic loss.

Yet though the majority of Israelis support withdrawal, evidence is mounting that it is intended to buy time and consolidate the hold on the big West Bank settlement blocs, cutting off Jerusalem and keeping Palestinians behind the “security fence’’ in disconnected enclaves that cannot be a viable state.

True, February’s ceasefire has just about held, breaking the cycle of suicide bombings and targeted killings, but the omens are bad. Sharon suspended prisoner releases because Mahmoud Abbas, struggling with Yasser Arafat’s legacy, has failed to disarm militant groups. Successes for the Islamist movement Hamas in the Palestinian local elections have introduced a new complication: it’s an impressive achievement for Middle Eastern democracy - but, unlike in Iraq and Lebanon, not one George Bush, or Sharon, will welcome.

Israelis, worrying introspectively about the future, are pondering whether it is wise to leave Gaza to Hamas. Hamas cannot accept, as the PLO has, the Zionist right to even partial possession of what it sees as Muslim patrimony. But its appeal to Palestinians fed up with the Fatah establishment, 38 years since the 1967 occupation, is undeniable. And while its ability to deliver local services and clean politics may matter more than ideology, the ideology won’t go away.

By the time intifada erupted in 1987, Hamas was a force to be reckoned with - which Yitzhak Rabin’s Labour government could not crush. Now it is part of reality, and likely to do well in July’s elections to the Palestinian parliament. If Israel does not want to deal with Hamas, it will have to try harder to help Abbas deliver an independent state.

Gaza’s next big moment will be when James Wolfensohn, former head of the World Bank, arrives to look at post-withdrawal needs. He is including the West Bank - underlining the point that Gaza must be the beginning, not the end, of Israeli concessions. Things will get interesting when, Gaza evacuated, pressure builds for a return to the “road map’’ to peace. That will be the time for Bush to finally spend the “political capital’’ he has pledged.

It is hellish for more than a million Palestinians living in misery in the world’s most densely populated place and, in different ways, for the Israelis who have ruled it for far too long. Leaving it should be a cause for celebration, not lamentation. But what happens next will matter much, much more. —The Guardian