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If Bush and Mubarak "welcome" the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza - meaning the evacuation of all the settlers - then certainly every resident of Sayaffeh and Muwasi, on whose lands the settlements of the northern Gaza Strip and Gush Katif were built, will be happy to see the settlers go, too. In the last three and a half years, the war for the settlers' peace and privileges has turned the farmers of Sayaffeh and Muwasi into prisoners in their own homes, living off handouts and charity as their farmlands were destroyed.

Now, Israeli democracy agrees that 200,000 rank-and-file Likud party members will decide whether or not residents of the north and central parts of Gaza remain prisoners without a trial. Will they remain welfare recipients despite their fertile land, or will they be able to entertain their own ambitions and desires to work to provide a livelihood for their families?

For three years, they have needed approvals and special arrangements to go in and out of their homes. The gate in the fence around them is only open at preset hours - and sometimes not at all - and walking on foot in the area is only allowed for certain age groups. Every tomato and guava that exits, every screwdriver and aspirin that enters, needs Israeli authorization, which means examination and waiting. Relatives are not allowed to visit, except in special, unusual cases. Palestinian infrastructure workers, doctors, teachers, etc., are allowed to enter the areas - but only after extensive and exhausting negotiations with the appropriate Israeli officers at the District Coordination and Liaison Office. When a similar arrangement was made in the enclaves created by the separation fence in the West Bank, it caused a flurry of attention in Israel, reflected in the media, the fence being moved slightly here and there, and (still unfulfilled) promises to move the fence elsewhere.

The fate of the few dozen residents of Sayaffeh and the few thousand in Muwasi are an allegory for the fate of the nearly 1.5 million Palestinian residents of Gaza: hostages to a few thousand settlers with their special water and land privileges, their right to move freely, their access to the beaches, their freedom to expand. And the fate of the residents of Gaza is the fate of all Palestinians: prisoners of the Israeli settlement enterprise.

If, indeed, the Likud rank and file vote to bring the settlers of Gaza home to Israel, even the most suspicious of Ariel Sharon's hidden intentions won't hide their joy. The children of Dir al-Balah, Khan Yunis and Rafah will be able to go the beach, the only area that is not built up and the Strip's only leisure spot, which has been closed to them for nearly four years. The farmers of Beit Lahia and Asban and Sheikh Ajlin and Khan Yunis will hurry to sow the lands the bulldozers tore up, demolishing crops and greenhouses along the way. Out of the mothballs will come the development plans for schools or clinics that could not be built because the only available land was held by the settlers; water and sewage treatment facilities long needed but delayed for the same reason will be built or upgraded. Students, teachers, medical teams, and truckers won't get stuck for hours on the road between Rafah and Gaza City because the soldiers, whose job was protecting the settlers, won't be there to close the route to Palestinians.

Here's a not very wild guess: the Likud rank and file, in their internal party democratic process, won't be asking if it is democratic for some 7,000 people to dictate the living conditions of nearly 1.5 million people. From that perspective, the referendum is a brief history of Israeli democracy since 1967. It's a democracy in which the citizenry, through their votes, decide on the living conditions of another 3.7 million people who are not allowed to take part in the democratic vote so are not allowed to determine how their lives will be led. This is a democracy that obliges its youth to obey democratic decisions and serve in the army, which is in charge of implementing the decisions by those same citizens to effectively annex most of the available Palestinian land. This is a democracy that learned to regard as naturally self-evident that in the same piece of land, between the sea and the river, two unequal legal systems of unequal rights be in place: one for the citizens who vote and decide, and the second for the residents who don't vote and whose fates are determined by those who do have the right to vote. Like the Likud rank and file.

Ariel Sharon will try to persuade the members of his party that disengagement from Gaza is the right way to preserve the vast majority of West Bank settlements. He'll try to persuade Bush that the Palestinian enclaves that will be created by leaving the settlement blocs in place can be called a state. And to the rest of the world, Israel will continue trying to explain that this process, in which its citizens decide how much living space the Palestinians have and over how many enclaves the Palestinians are divided, is a democratic process, the only one in the Middle East.