AFTER 38 YEARS, Israel is ending its occupation of the Gaza Strip. It's an unprecedented turn in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that should be used to foster a resumption of the peace process, secure borders for Israel andpave the way for an independent state for Palestinians. The Palestinian government and Palestinian militants, not surprisingly, are claiming the Israeli withdrawal for their own political purposes - a rallying cry for unity from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a dangerous exhortation to continue to fight from the Islamic Resistance Movement known as Hamas.
But neither can claim credit for this significant departure. That recognition rightly belongs to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who realized that the settlement policy he engineered after the 1967 Middle East war and promoted through the intervening years had wrought untenable consequences for Israel in the Gaza Strip. The retired general chose a new strategy to secure the future of a Jewish state.
As Israeli soldiers began delivering evacuation notices yesterday at 21 Gaza settlements and four smaller ones on the West Bank, they were met by raucous protesters from the nationalist, religious settler movement that promotes a Biblical claim to the land. Nonetheless, settlers would be wise to voluntarily leave their homes before tomorrow's deadline, when Israeli soldiers will begin forcibly removing them. Young Israeli supporters of the settlers who have infiltrated Gaza against a military order should be arrested and jailed if they jeopardize an orderly, safe withdrawal. As the past has tragically shown, it only takes one deranged individual with a gun to sabotage the best-laid plans.
Once withdrawal is complete, the Palestinian Authority's challenge will be to govern and secure the strip in a way that focuses Palestinians on building self-sufficient communities on evacuated land and taking full advantage of their new freedom in the absence of Israeli checkpoints and restrictions. Mr. Abbas' decision to reschedule legislative elections for Jan. 21 is a welcome move toward self-determination.
Businesses along Gaza's Mediterranean shore should be revived and new ones developed with the help of the rest of the Arab world. Additionally, Israeli officials should work with their Palestinian counterparts to remove impediments to a revived Palestinian economy. A Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip that is busy developing its land and civil society will be less of a threat to Israel.
But what follows the withdrawal will depend not only on Israel and the Palestinians. Washington has to insist that the Gaza evacuation is a first step - a critical one - on a continuum toward peace. Mr. Abbas must police the militants who choose not to join in rebuilding Palestinian life there; Mr. Sharon has to resist the inclination to continue fortifying the West Bank settlements, lest he provide Hamas with its best recruiting tool.
A negotiated, two-state solution remains the best course for both sides.