Gaza chaos endangers prospects for peace and statehood

Thousands swarmed over the Gaza-Egpyt border, militants torched synagogues left behind by Israel, looters carried away water pumps from precious greenhouses and masked militants paraded through the streets with rifles and rocket launchers.

Chaos during the first three days of Palestinian self-rule in Gaza is raising serious questions about the Palestinian Authority's ability to assert control following this week's historic Israeli departure.

If Gaza remains lawless, all the potential payoffs of the Israeli pullout - renewed peace talks, economic reconstruction, revived hopes for statehood - will be threatened.

Palestinian officials chalk up the mayhem to the release of frustration pent up during 38 years of harsh Israeli occupation _ and promise to bring the situation under control soon. The border with Egypt will be sealed, assets in the former Israeli settlements will be protected and wayward gunmen will be incorporated into the security services, they promise.

So far promises have outweighed realities. A Palestinian commander pledged that security forces would take up positions on the Egyptian border by Tuesday evening but the next morning the frontier remained wide open. Palestinian officials speak ambitiously about reining in Hamas but the militant group drew its largest crowd ever on Tuesday night, with tens of thousands of people, many of them armed and masked, converging on Gaza City's main square.

Hamas is competing with the Palestinian Authority for control of the Gaza Strip, and the outcome of that power struggle is likely to shape the course of Mideast peacemaking. If Gaza becomes a terrorism-laden "Hamas-stan" as many Israelis fear, further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank would be less likely, with Israeli hardliners bolstered by Gaza's failures.

Success in Gaza, however, could give a big boost to Palestinian aspirations for statehood, as Palestinians prove they're capable of maintaining stability. But to be stable Gaza must be less isolated, and to be less isolated it must restrain extremists, because Israel won't allow open borders if gunmen and weapons pass through them.

Palestinian policemen stood by helplessly as looters carted off irrigation hoses, water pumps and plastic sheeting from former Israeli greenhouses that American Jewish donors had bought and transferred to the Palestinian Authority in hopes that less impoverished neighbors would make better ones.

And police did nothing when militants on Wednesday blew up a section of an Israeli-built border wall to make it easier for people to cross into Egypt.

But Palestinian officials continue to say they'll disarm the militants through persuasion, not force, the AP reports.

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