Leading article: Gaza must not be Israel's last territorial concession

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The Independent Online

There is no doubt that this was a disciplined and impeccably managed operation. The planners and the Israeli military must be given their due for accomplishing an excessively hard task well. The withdrawal from Gaza was completed in a fraction of the time set aside for it. The way is now open for the whole territory to be transferred to Palestinian control with a minimum of complication on the ground and a minimum of further controversy inside Israel.

The Israeli occupation of Gaza is now a chapter that has closed. From now on, responsibility for the government and well-being of the territory rests with the Palestinian Authority.

The occupation of the West Bank, however, is another matter. Yesterday, Israeli troops began the much smaller, but more fiercely opposed, operation to dismantle four settlements there. With soldiers deployed outnumbering settlers by two to one, nothing has been left to chance. The crucial question, though, is what happens next. Will the withdrawal from Gaza and the much smaller retreat in the West Bank turn out to be the first stage in a wider withdrawal programme, or is it the most that Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is prepared to cede?

Mr Sharon appeared to give at least a partial answer yesterday when he was reported by the Jerusalem Post as saying that Israel would continue to build in the West Bank. Specifically, he mentioned the two largest settlements outside Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Mr Sharon said something similar in remarks to troops who had completed the Gaza evacuations when he told them that there would be no more unilateral withdrawals. Both pronouncements seemed to put paid to the hope, harboured by the Palestinians and by many outside Israel, that Gaza was a rehearsal for a complete withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Mr Sharon struck another ominous note when he insisted that any return to the international road-map for peace would depend entirely on the response of the Palestinians. In language reminiscent of the hard line Israel took during the last months of Yasser Arafat's life, Mr Sharon said that terrorism had to stop, terrorist organisations had to be dismantled, weapons confiscated and serious reforms carried out before progress would be possible.

It may be premature - we hope it is - to conclude that the withdrawal from Gaza was more about making the state of Israel easier to defend than about unblocking the peace process. A more benign interpretation would be that Mr Sharon was trying to prevent the Gaza withdrawal being seen as evidence of Israeli weakness and to strengthen his political position at home. In other words, that it is a tactical position that does not preclude further West Bank withdrawals in the longer term.

The risk is, however, that even hinting at the expansion of existing settlements in the West Bank is bound to prompt questions about Israel's good faith and trigger a new show of strength from militants in Gaza. Such a turn of events would undercut the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, at the very time he most needs to prove his authority. It would also mean that the best chance of progress towards peace for many years had been squandered.