Now, It's the Palestinians' Turn

Behaving as if nothing has happened, the Palestinians continue to use the old, anachronistic rhetoric that has become so nauseatingly familiar.

For the past year, the disengagement has been perceived first and foremost as an Israeli event. And in truth, the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank was an Israeli event of the utmost importance. It proved that Israel has grown up and freed itself of the paradigms of the past. It proved that Israel is determined to deal with the problem of the occupation even if the conflict does not end. It proved that Israel is capable of meeting the challenge of the settlers and the settlements. It proved that the state of Israel is controlled today by a sane, intelligent majority that is capable of enforcing its will on the fanatic minority that sneered at it for generations.

But now, after the last Israeli has come home, the disengagement has ceased to be an Israeli event. Now, after the gate of the Kissufim checkpoint has been locked, the disengagement has become a Palestinian event. The exclamation point that Ariel Sharon placed at the gates of Gaza has been replaced by an unprecedented Palestinian question mark. The Israeli withdrawal vacated an arena in which a fateful Palestinian drama is about to be played out.

The Palestinians are trying to blur this decisive fact. They are behaving as if nothing has happened. They continue to use the old, anachronistic rhetoric that has become so nauseatingly familiar. They continue to claim that the Israeli withdrawal is incomplete and insufficient. They continue to declare that the struggle will continue until every bit of Palestinian land has been liberated. And even worse: by torching the synagogues and storming the Philadelphi route, they are signaling that they do not intend to behave as a responsible state.

By refusing to deal with their own fanatic minority, they are declaring that they bear no burden of responsibility. From their perspective, what was is what will be: diplomacy and terror, negotiations and violence, a pragmatic authority and a Hamas authority. The same two-headed and two-faced character that they bore until the disengagement will continue even after the disengagement. As if the disengagement had never happened. As if the disengagement were not a milestone in Palestinian history.

This Palestinian obfuscation creates a need to clarify the issue: Never before have the Palestinians ruled their own bit of land. Never before have the Palestinians not lived under occupation. Thus now, following the end of the disengagement, they have attained what they never had before. After hundreds of years of subservience to Turkish foreign rule and British foreign rule and Egyptian and Jordanian and Israeli foreign rule, some 1.5 million Palestinians have finally gained self-rule. After hundreds of years of oppression, some 1.5 million Palestinians now live, for the first time, without roadblocks, without prisons, without settlements and without a government of occupation. Ironically, it was Sharon who gave so many of them what Haj Amin al-Husseini and Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yasser Arafat did not give them: liberty.

Thus these days of September 2005 are foundational moments in the history of the Palestinian people. True, the Gaza Strip is narrow and harsh. True, the liberated territory in the northern West Bank is not contiguous with Area A. But with the disengagement over, a significant portion of Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza is now devoid of any Israeli presence. With the disengagement over, a significant portion of the Palestinian population now lives without fear of the Israeli occupation. The horizon is wide open: Some 1.5 million Palestinians are free to build a future for themselves - to rehabilitate Palestinian society and build up the Palestinian economy and gradually establish a free Palestinian state.

Nobody is asking the Palestinians to give up their demand for the liberation of the entire West Bank. Nobody expects them to give up their demand for full sovereignty and a complete end to the occupation. But precisely if the Palestinians do want to advance toward further Israeli withdrawals, they must quickly switch their diskette. Change their ethos. Move from grumbling to constructive activity. From demanding to building. Put their feelings of eternal victimhood behind them and begin acting like a mature political entity.

Freedom creates obligations - even when it is only partial. Now, when the Palestinians have been given freedom such as they have never known before, they also bear responsibility such as they have never known before. Their relationship with Israel is changing. It is no longer just that of occupier and occupied. It is no longer just that of master and servant. That is why the spotlight of history is now focused on those very Palestinians who have begun to be masters of their own fate. That is why all eyes are now fixed on liberated Gaza. Because now, the decisive question is what the Palestinians' choice will be.

If they choose life, order and neighborliness - the sky is the limit. If they choose death, chaos and victimhood - the road to hell is short. But either way, this time, the Palestinians will not be able to blame anyone else. The choice is in their hands. Following the disengagement, it is the Palestinians who bear principal responsibility for their own fate, their own future and their own actions.