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Settlers and the Future of Gaza

IT has been almost one year since Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) was created. In that short time, many of the assumptions upon which the historic accord between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel is based have been undermined. Mutual confidence between Israelis and Palestinians has not been enhanced, but eroded. Economic relations have not strengthened; they have been strangled by an Israeli decision to deny Palestinians the economic benefits of their dependence upon Israel. The PA has not been able to build upon the limited powers conferred by the Oslo accord.

Many elements of the agreement, including elections and the expansion of formal PA authority beyond Gaza-Jericho, have not been implemented. In many respects, the situation in the occupied territories has never been worse.

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These shortcomings, however, have not obscured the fundamental success of the accord in the eyes of the two men who embraced it. For PA chairman Yasser Arafat, Gaza-Jericho has enabled the establishment of a beachhead of Palestinian power in the homeland. For Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the accord answered a popular Israeli demand to remove their sons from the teeming, hostile refugee camps that consume Gaza.

Or did it? Two recent suicide attacks on Israeli military targets may well represent a turning point in Palestinian, and more important in Israeli, thinking. To the Palestinians, the attacks are another demonstration that Israel -- both its settlers and its Army -- has not left Gaza. For Israelis, these latest assaults are a painful reminder that the Oslo accord has not liberated them from Gaza, and that military duty in Gaza today is more dangerous than at the height of the intifadah.

Mr. Rabin now risks losing the support of the people who, long before Oslo, motivated the search for a solution to Israel's problems in Gaza -- Israelis who were fed up with killing and being killed in the refugee camps of Jabaliya, Nuseirat, and Shaati. The body bags sent home to Israel earlier this month signify Oslo has not solved their problem.

The isolated Israeli settlements and their 6,000-odd residents are the most visible evidence -- to both Palestinians and Israelis -- that Oslo avoided the contest for control of the land that lies at the heart of the century-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Moshe Dayan, the most important architect of Israel's settlement policies in the occupied territories, once explained that settlements were the mechanism that transformed Israeli troops from an army of occupation, which the Israeli public would not support, to an army protecting its citizens.

In Gaza today, more clearly than ever, the existence of settlements provides Israel with a compelling rationale to maintain a military presence there. Without the mission to protect settlements, Israeli troops would be stripped of any object other than policing Palestinians and maintaining a strategic defense of Israel proper.

Despite his rapprochement with Mr. Arafat, Rabin has not forsaken the desire to hold the Gaza Strip by force of arms. The continuing existence of the settlements in Gaza -- particularly the tiny, bankrupt sites at Netzarim and Kfar Darom -- is a testament to Rabin's intent to maintain a politically acceptable rationale for maintaining a dominating Israeli military presence in the Gaza Strip.

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The Rabin government is not about to abandon these settlements, as some Israelis and all Palestinians demand. Rather, faced with a growing tally of victims, the Israeli Army can be expected to intensify its campaign against Israel's Palestinians.

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