How will Gaza survive Sharon's plans without a leader to hold it together?

I find it impossible to identify a figure other than Arafat with the historical legitimacy
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The Gaza Strip is 140 square miles of rubble and dust. Last time I walked through the bombed-out, burned-down wreckage of Rafah - a cursed town at the very tip of Gaza - I spoke to Eyad El Sarraj, a Palestinian psychiatrist.

The Gaza Strip is 140 square miles of rubble and dust. Last time I walked through the bombed-out, burned-down wreckage of Rafah - a cursed town at the very tip of Gaza - I spoke to Eyad El Sarraj, a Palestinian psychiatrist.

"The level of mental illness here is incredibly high," he said with dull, melancholy eyes. "A majority of Gaza's children are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I am presented with severely disturbed children every day, incontinent 12-year-olds, children who cannot stop shaking... terrible cases."

The destroyed houses of Rafah crunched beneath his feet. "The adults can hardly cope any better. Twenty five per cent of our people have spent time in jail, and 70 per cent of those have been subject to torture. Can you imagine the long-term psychological effects of this? Thanks to this occupation, we now have a society where the heroes are the ones who kill themselves."

I thought of Dr Sarraj again this week. How psychologically prepared are the Palestinian people to face the two massive challenges - the end of the occupation of Gaza and the loss of Yasser Arafat?

Let's start with the good news: even after 37 years of being occupied and reduced to extreme poverty by a democracy - hardly a good example - Palestinians still want a democracy of their own. In the most recent polling, 95 per cent want free, open, regular general elections in which anybody can stand, and 82 per cent demand a completely free press with no censorship. This summer, there was a seminal moment in Palestinian politics. Protesters across Gaza launched a mass campaign against the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and demanded "democracy, democracy, democracy."

So much for the racist idea that Arabs are "tribal people" who don't even want a decent political system. If the Palestinians can (at last) wrest control of their future from both Israeli occupiers and Arafat's corrupt generation of Palestinian politicians, then Palestine will succeed.

But can they do it? It's clear what Sharon - a man who has been targeting Palestinian civilians all his adult life - would like to happen. There has been a lot of nonsense spoken lately about Sharon suddenly becoming "a dove" and trying to "kick-start the peace process". (I should know - I fell for some of this nonsense at first). There is no excuse for being deluded now. Sharon's senior advisor Dov Weisglass explained this month that the Gaza withdrawal is designed to "remove indefinitely from the agenda... this whole package called the Palestinian state". Out of 240,000 illegal settlers living on stolen Palestinian land, he boasted, "190,000 would not be moved from their place".

No more illusions. Sharon is getting rid of Gaza - a difficult place to police, and one with no religious significance - so he can consolidate his control over the West Bank. Palm off the rubble on somebody else, and keep God's Territory to yourself. It would neatly complete Sharon's screenplay if Gaza, once released, sinks further into anarchy and poverty. Sharon could then claim the Palestinians were better off under the Israeli boot, and bind the West Bank even tighter to the settlers.

The old General is maximising the chances of this happening. He is being as ambiguous as possible about who he will hand power to in Gaza, and boosting the popularity of the Palestinians' craziest fundamentalist groups by systematically "martyring" their leaders.

But don't despair just yet. The Palestinians can still disrupt the Sharon script without murdering Israeli civilians with suicide bombs. The best way to do this is for the many jagged splinters that make up Palestinian political life to agree to participate in and abide by the results of democratic elections in Gaza. This free, unified Gaza could, over time, be used to gain international credibility and strengthen the (already overwhelming) moral case for freeing the West Bank from settlement and apartheid. Sharon will not be there forever; in time, a peaceful Gaza could convince the Israeli public to turn on their thuggish settlers and relinquish the West Bank.

The model for this Palestinian mini-state on the Gaza Strip could be - in one of the neat ironies that litter Middle Eastern history - the Zionist movement. In the 1930s and 1940s, there were dozens of different groups fighting for an end to British occupation and the creation of an Israeli state. They stretched from the hard-right Stern Gang to the socialist Haganah. There was a real fear that these various militias would never unify, and that they would make Israel ungovernable.

But once the Israeli state was created in 1948, Menachem Begin's right-wing Irgun reluctantly placed its arms under the democratic control of the elected Israeli government. The other factions followed - and the rest is a history of internal success and prosperity.

Will the Palestinian factions show the same determination to succeed - especially when Sharon is setting them up to fail? In the vacuum left by the Israeli withdrawal next spring, there will be sixteen different Palestinian security apparatuses, in addition to dozens of Islamic resistance groups, from huge networks like Hamas to tiny armed gangs based in individual refugee camps. Egypt is supposed to offer some degree of external security, but Hosni Mubarak's government is now backing off even from that. Will all this congeal into a coherent state?

The chances of this happening are diminished even further once Arafat - the one undisputed symbol of Palestinian resistance - is no longer there to provide some symbolic glue. Nobody should mistake this for approval; Arafat's model of political resistance is a lousy one. He compromised the Palestinians' moral legitimacy by condoning the targeting of innocent Israeli civilians. Eighty two per cent of Palestinians believe his Palestinian Authority is "somewhat" or "very" corrupt. When he was given real power in 1993, he used torture just as readily as the Israelis.

But we have to be pragmatic. You can't democratise a vacuum. If Gaza shatters into competing armed gangs with no legitimate government, then there is little hope of progress. I find it impossible to identify a figure other than Arafat with the historical legitimacy to hold Gaza together in the immediate aftermath of a withdrawal. Is there anyone else who could gradually persuade the various armed gangs to become absorbed into a single state?

The best-case scenario was for this to happen alongside mass popular democratic movements within Palestine that pressured the Palestinian leader to make his own powers subject to monitoring by a free press, parliament and electorate. Without Arafat, it is hard to see anybody else assuming enough authority to do this in time for the withdrawal next spring - and a collapse into anarchy in Gaza becomes probable.

I try to picture Dr Sarraj's patients now, half-mad with fear and hate and hope. I believe it is still possible for them to get through this to a free Palestinian state alongside Israel if they manage to build a single, unified state in Gaza that provides a model for the West Bank. If they could endure ethnic cleansing in the 1940s, if they could endure occupation for 37 years, they can survive a withdrawal calculated to bring chaos to Gaza and a renewed squeezing of the West Bank. But it will be a small miracle if they manage to retain their collective sanity on the way.