THE GAZA Strip is as good a place as any to start dismantling Israel's illegal settlements. Jews living there number about 7,500, less than 1 percent of the population in this area along the Mediterranean Sea that has been controlled by the Palestinian Authority since 1994. Most Israelis have no national or religious ties to the territory, formerly held by Egypt and occupied by Israel after the 1967 war with the Arabs.
But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate - relocate, he said later - Israeli settlers from Gaza is relevant to the Middle East peace process only if Mr. Sharon actually removes them. He has given no timetable for relocation, but he would enhance Israel's standing in the world community if he seriously undertook the challenge.
Mr. Sharon's announcement, first reported Monday by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, already has unleashed the expected threats from hard-liners in the Cabinet to bring down his government. Some lawmakers have cynically linked Mr. Sharon's plan to the legal scandal involving his sons, which could ultimately ensnare the prime minister. Or his pending trip to Washington to meet with President Bush. There are other reasons to be wary of Mr. Sharon's pronouncement: He, after all, was an architect and promoter of Israel's settlement policy. But he also was the man who, however reluctantly, evacuated and razed the settlements in the Sinai as part of the peace treaty with Egypt.
Until now, though, Mr. Sharon has refused to identify settlements he would dismantle as part of his plan to "disengage" from the Palestinians should the two sides fail to reach a negotiated settlement under the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace. The road map requires Israel to freeze settlement activity, which it has refused to do until the Palestinians crack down on terrorists. The peace process, as a result, remains at a standstill, with neither the United States nor the other sponsors engaged in any meaningful diplomacy.
The settlers, who number about 240,000 in the West Bank and Gaza, are a potent political force in Israel and abroad. Their religious claim to the West Bank also resonates with fundamentalist Christians who have defended Israel's presence in the territories to officials in Washington. Mr. Sharon's announcement this week that Israel wouldn't hold on to the Gaza settlements in a final peace deal with the Palestinians is welcome, but the prime minister will need help from Washington to buy out the Gaza settlers. Mr. Bush should offer Mr. Sharon a financial package that will move this process to its rightful end.