The Taiwan of the Middle East

Three years after the disengagement, the Taiwan of the Middle East is taking shape in the Gaza Strip - a "rebellious province" of the Palestinian Authority whose government is not internationally recognized, subject to meddling by regional and international superpowers.

Three years after the disengagement, the Taiwan of the Middle East is taking shape in the Gaza Strip - a "rebellious province" of the Palestinian Authority whose government is not internationally recognized, subject to meddling by regional and international superpowers.

Gaza and Taiwan? The comparison seems absurd. One is a fenced-off enclave of 1.5 million poor, unemployed Palestinians, the other is an economic tiger. One is characterized by street battles and violence, the other is a state of law. In one, a terrorist organization is consolidating its rule by force, the other has elections and changes of government.

But it is a mistake to compare Gaza to the peaceful, developed Taiwan of today. Rather, one must remember the circumstances in which Taiwan was established as an independent entity almost 60 years ago: It emerged from a civil war that broke out following the end of a foreign occupation. It, too, experienced severe violence, a repressive government and a shattered economy.

Just like the Fatah government in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza, the two Chinese governments - in Taipei and Beijing - also both claimed to be the legitimate ruler of all China, and each demanded that the world boycott the other. Taiwan exists today thanks to American patronage, without diplomatic recognition, and subject to constant fear that continental China, which views it as a rebellious province, will once again try to take it over. Taiwan's economic boom preceded that of mainland China by a generation and served as a model for it.

In Gaza, a similar situation is developing. Hamas is consolidating its rule, ignoring the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and claiming legitimacy as the party that won the last election. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) enjoys international recognition as the president of all Palestinians, in the West Bank and Gaza alike, and denies the legality of the Hamas government, but has no power or standing in Gaza.

It is frequently claimed that Ariel Sharon did not hand Gaza over to Abbas properly, and therefore, it fell to Hamas. But that is a mistake. It is doubtful that a public embrace by Sharon, whom Palestinians viewed as a cruel and bitter enemy, would have bolstered Abbas' legitimacy. Abbas' error was that instead of waiting for Israel to do him favors, he should have moved his family and his government from Ramallah to Gaza and remained there until he had imposed order and jump-started the economy.

Every week, world leaders and foreign ministers would come visit him, and during their visits, they would press Israel to open the border crossings, approve construction of a Gaza port and allow development of the Strip's natural gas fields. But Abbas, instead of running things himself, left control of Gaza to low-level functionaries and local clans. Hamas swept them aside almost effortlessly.

The second mistake was that of the international community, which insisted on basing Gaza's economy on agriculture - specifically, the greenhouses left behind by Gush Katif. Agriculture requires land and water, both of which are in very short supply in Gaza, as well as rapid access to markets, which depends on a problematic transit through Israel. Instead of making Gaza's existence dependent on the Karni crossing, which was sure to experience closures and security problems, the PA and its donors should have built a high-tech industry in the Strip.

Does that seem delusional? Why? After all, Gaza has no raw materials, but it does have the most valuable resource of the 21st century: a young, energetic population with free time. Just like Taiwan after the Chinese civil war. It is both necessary and possible to teach Gaza residents to test and develop software at competitive prices. High-tech exports require no physical shipping. You hit "send," and the file is on its way - without trucks, checkpoints, X-ray machines or political restrictions.

This idea was presented to the World Bank's representative, but he dismissed it scornfully: "That's good for the long term." That was a mistake. The long term is a collection of short terms. What is not begun now will never materialize in the future. The American administration and the World Bank wasted time finalizing the Agreement on Movement and Access with Israel, which, predictably, was promptly violated. Gaza remained with neither agriculture nor high-tech. Just shortages.

The good news is that it is not too late. If Hamas quells the internal violence, enforces the truce with Israel and internalizes its responsibilities toward Gaza's residents, it can build a new economy in Gaza. But it should not waste time on agriculture; it should train unemployed Palestinians for modern jobs and gradually wean Gaza from its dependence on Israel for transit.

This will not end the conflict or eliminate terror. But if the distress were eased, if Gaza residents were employed and if the storm brewing under the surface were calmed, that would be a huge achievement. And should Gaza flourish, that would also give hope to Palestinians in the West Bank.

Delusional? Absurd? Look at Taiwan.