Once the media circus is over, Israel’s melodramatic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip should be judged by how it improves Palestinian lives and the chances of a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict.

On the face of it, ending thirty-eight years of Israel’s military and civilian occupation is news. The evacuation of hundreds of illegally implanted Jewish families from the midst of close to a million and a half Palestinians, the majority of whom are refugees, will close the curtains on some of the occupation’s most cynical scenes. That’s why Palestinians are celebrating the withdrawal as a defeat for the occupation and victory for years of resistance. As a new Palestinian slogan goes, they hope for “Gaza today, tomorrow Jerusalem and the West Bank.”

That is precisely what Ariel Sharon’s plan aims to prevent. As settlers grieve, most Israelis approve of the withdrawal as a necessary demographic disengagement from an area that encompasses 2 percent of historical Palestine and 20 percent of all Palestinians. Israel’s strategic redeployment around the hostile Strip and its total control over Gaza’s ports and crossings allows it, at will, to turn the area into one big prison.

Once Palestinians are preoccupied with rebuilding their shattered lives under international scrutiny, Israel will accelerate the de facto annexation of the settlement blocs in the West Bank and Jerusalem. In the first three months of 2005, construction in the West Bank settlements increased by 83 percent compared with the first quarter of 2004, when in Israel proper it decreased by a quarter. As a general, Sharon understands that in war one must at times cede tactically in order to win strategically. Accordingly, and “in the absence of a Palestinian peace partner,” Israel will disengage from Gaza in order to impose its vision on the ten-times-larger West Bank and Jerusalem: the crown jewels of the occupation.

This translates into a de facto disengagement from the peace process. Instead of basing Israel’s steps on agreements with the Palestinians, Sharon is doing the opposite–act first, talk later–in complicity with Washington, which wants the Palestinians to accept the Sharon plan as the only game in town, regardless of its motives, in order to reshape their destiny. Their leadership should begin by “dismantling the infrastructure of terrorism” and raise the banner of good governance in its stead.

Palestinians have every interest in making Gaza work for its people and as a step toward their goal of full statehood in all lands occupied in 1967. The Palestinian Authority has made commendable efforts to organize the security forces, improve transparency and end corruption. Mahmoud Abbas, the president, has reached ceasefires with the armed Palestinian factions, and the largest, Hamas, has joined the political process. After an impressive showing in the municipal vote earlier this year, the Islamist group will participate, for the first time, in the legislative elections, now set for January.

The politicization of the Islamist groups will make them more accountable to their electorate for their actions, including all attacks on Israeli civilians. They will be forced to balance their relations of force with Israel against their power relations with competing groups in the emerging Palestinian entity.

The viability of Gaza, according to the World Bank, will depend primarily on an end to the crippling Israeli closures and freedom of movement, especially to the West Bank. That will prove an uphill battle with a Sharon government that demands, as a precondition to “concessions,” that the Palestinian Authority crack down on Hamas and other armed factions, whose supporters constitute from a third to a half of the Gaza Strip population. Any such attempt will escalate into civil war.

Squeezed between Sharon’s war and a war among brothers, the Palestinian leadership and opposition will probably appeal for international intervention. My guess is that Sharon will unilaterally impose the “state in Gaza first” option and open the process for years of bargaining that one day could lead to half a state on half of the West Bank and Gaza. If the Bush Administration goes along with Sharon, a third intifada will follow the one that erupted five years ago, when American and Israeli leaders tried to corner another Palestinian president at Camp David.

All Palestinians deserve an immediate end to an occupation that has lasted decades. Anything less would transform Israel’s Gaza nightmare into a daily West Bank reality.