Ramallah, West Bank - As Palestinian factions vie for credit for Israel's disengagement from Gaza, many forget that the success really belongs to the ordinary men, women and children of Palestine who have remained in their homeland during 38 years of devastating occupation and clung to the belief in the justice of their cause. The disengagement is a direct result of their patience and resilience, and now the occupation has only one direction to go - backward.
Serious risks and challenges lie ahead, however. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel has learned that there is a price to pay for oppressing and dispossessing the Palestinian people. But instead of embracing a negotiated peace based on international law, he has used limited tactical unilateral actions to deflect attention in other directions.
His tactics have laid three main challenges in front of the Palestinian people.
First, Palestinian mismanagement of the Gaza Strip would encourage critics to claim that Palestinians are unfit for self-rule.
We can avoid this by holding fair democratic elections in the legislative council, municipalities and all representative bodies, making sure competition between factions is expressed only through the ballot box, in a peaceful and pluralistic manner. Forcing opinions on people using violence, intimidation, favoritism and patronage must be avoided at all costs.
Rumors that the evacuated lands might be monopolized by influential members of the Palestinian political establishment can easily be dispensed with if the Palestinian Authority follows the rule of law with complete transparency when allocating the lands. Privately owned land must be returned to its rightful owners, and public lands must remain under public domain to be used for the public good.
Second, many fear that Israel's "disengagement" is nothing more than a redeployment that will render Palestinian sovereignty in Gaza impossible. If Israel removes its settlers and soldiers but maintains control over all access to Gaza by land, sea and air, the strip will remain an isolated, impoverished prison. Palestinians must insist on complete Palestinian control over the Gaza coastline and the border with Egypt, with no Israeli interference or supervision.
Third, Sharon's attempt to use the disengagement to cut Gaza off from the West Bank and freeze the peace process indefinitely presents the biggest challenge.
Further delay gives Sharon time to impose more facts on the ground [in the West Bank] that prejudice final-status negotiations. By continuing to build the Wall, expand settlements and slice East Jerusalem off the political map, Sharon is attempting to impose a unilateral final resolution that is unacceptable to the Palestinian people and at odds with international law.
Sharon's vision of bartering Gaza for East Jerusalem and vast and vital areas of the West Bank would destroy the dream of Palestinian statehood and replace it with a nightmare of isolated, impoverished cantons, similar to the bantustans that black South Africans rejected under apartheid. It could mean a third intifada.
After the disengagement, Sharon faces a precarious internal political situation. Those who seek peace must immediately act to ensure that the redeployment from Gaza transitions into a comprehensive withdrawal from all settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. International law unequivocally states that the settlements in Gaza have no legitimacy. The settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are held under the same illegal belligerent occupancy and must likewise be dismantled and evacuated.
To become agents of our own destiny, Palestinians must follow three steps. The first is to call for an international peace conference like the one held in Madrid in 1991. This will end the political freeze that Sharon is trying to impose. It will open for discussion critical issues such as the East Jerusalem settlements, final borders and the rights of refugees. It will engage the international community in the negotiations, which Israel has long sought to prevent. And, most important, it will re-establish international law as the basis by which the Palestinian/Israeli conflicts must be solved.
The second step is to take the International Court of Justice ruling that Israel's Wall is contrary to international law to the United Nations and demand that the ruling be enforced by nonviolent means such as sanctions until Israel complies.
Finally, the nonviolent struggle against the Wall and settlements must continue in Palestine and around the world in order to maintain strong grassroots and civil society pressure against Israel's illegal policies.
Today we and all who have stood with us in our struggle for peace and freedom celebrate the removal of illegal settlements from Gaza. But we must remain vigilant in order to harness the momentum of this process and take it to its logical conclusion - a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
(Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, general secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative, was a candidate in the Palestinian presidential elections in January. )