November 3, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

Chance of a Lifetime

With Arafat Dying or Dead and Israelis Leaving Gaza, Palestinians Have a Unique Opportunity

Call it coincidence, call it providence, but events have converged to open a remarkable window of opportunity in the Middle East.

First,Yasser Arafat is either dead or permanently incapacitated. This gives other Palestinian leaders – Prime Minster Ahmed Qorei and former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, for example — a chance to move on — without having to publicly acknowledge this transparent truth: That for the people who live, work and raise families on the West Bank and Gaza, Arafat was a catastrophe. 

Second, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has made up his mind to move Israeli troops and communities out of Gaza – to give up any Israeli claims to that territory (which was under the control of Egypt until the Six Day War of 1967). That has split Sharon's own Likud Party, something no politician likes to do. And he's had to make common cause with the opposition Labor Party which also could not have been easy. Sharon – as both his fans and his critics readily admit – is not a “kumbaya” kind of guy.

Gaza is an awful place right now. But it need not have been – and does not have to be in the future. If its leaders and people were determined to turn Gaza into a Singapore or a Hong Kong (small territories that have become vibrant and prosperous with few resources) what would stop them?

Gaza sits on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. In the 1980s – under Israeli occupation — it was making steady economic progress, with unemployment less than 5 percent. But since the Israelis transferred control to Arafat's Palestinian Authority in 1994, Gaza's economy has declined by more than a third.

In the past, many Gazans routinely commuted into Israel to work in specially created industrial zones. But suicide-terrorists disguised as workers began blowing themselves up at the crossing points. As a consequence, the Israeli authorities have all but closed down the crossings and eliminated the jobs. Unemployment in Gaza is now over 20%. 

Gaza-based terrorists also have been firing Qassam rockets into Israel. Israel has had no choice but to stage military operations against rocket factories and the terrorists who run them. 

In this environment, even sympathetic Europeans do not invest in Gaza. Only billions of dollars in international aid has kept Gaza's economy from collapsing entirely. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has done little to promote development – or freedom or human rights or democracy or anything else of value. UNRWA Commissioner-General Peter Hansen has admitted that his organization hires members of the terrorist group Hamas. He says he sees nothing wrong in that. One must hope he's lying; the alternative is that he's morally obtuse.

Even after Israeli “disengagement,” Gaza will remain dependent on Israel for water, sewerage, electricity and other services. In the past, this has created the peculiar situation of Palestinians attempting to murder Israelis in the morning, then complaining to them about their telephone service in the afternoon.

Arafat never seriously attempted to rein in the terrorism. On the contrary, he encouraged it, financed it (using funds from the European Union and elsewhere) and ordered it. 

But think what it would mean were a post-Arafat Palestinian leadership to choose a different course. Would not the world beat a path to Gaza's door – to assist in every possible way with reconstruction? And imagine the impact were a real civil society to take root in Gaza – one that rejected terrorism and embraced freedom. Does anyone doubt that the vast majority of Israelis – despite all that has happened – would respond enthusiastically? 

The Israeli statesman Abba Eban famously said that Palestinians “never lose the opportunity to lose an opportunity.” I once thought that an insightful comment. But after 2000, when Arafat rejected what U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross called “the best deal he could ever get,” I came to believe that Arafat, like his friends in Hamas, could never come to terms with the existence of a Jewish state in what he believes must be an exclusively Arab and Muslim Middle East. 

Arafat's goal was always fatah — conquest, the extermination of Israel, one final ethnic cleansing of Jews from their ancient homeland. To believe otherwise was delusion — a delusion Arafat was skilled at selling to anybody who would listen.

But not all Palestinians see it that way. Some are moderate enough that they would welcome a peaceful and diverse Middle East — with room for Muslims, Christians, Jews, Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians and others. Some are pragmatic enough that they would compromise to ensure that their children lead normal lives. 

Rebuilding Gaza – with schools, hospitals, businesses, farms, beaches and parks — could be an historic beginning. Will Palestinians grasp the opportunity? It's not likely. But neither is it impossible.

– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



Palestinian Politics