Israel and the US should pursue the creation of a free-trade area in the Gaza Strip. The decisive Likud rejection of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral Gaza disengagement plan with its evacuation of settlers can be bypassed, and the Road Map energized, by the US promoting an international Middle East Free Trade Area (Mefta) in Gaza administered by the US-led Multinational Force and Observers, which overseas the peace in the Sinai.

A small prototype Port Mefta can soon be agreed to by Israel and, at least initially, the young guard of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority led by former Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan. Later, Gush Katif becomes part of Mefta and Israel ends its occupation of the Gaza Strip but the settlers stay as international traders.

The US with the needed aid of Egypt and Jordan would help implement the following strategy to achieve full employment in the Gaza Strip and thus ensure prosperity there, and end Israel’s occupation of Gaza without withdrawing settlers:

1) an international free trade and tourist area soon along the Gaza coast between Deir El Balah and Gush Katif, Port Mefta, under the administration and policing of the MFO to generate tens of thousands of good secure Palestinian jobs;

(2) a temporary Palestinian gambling casino promptly established in the future Port Mefta area;

(3) a nonthreatening democratic Palestinian state, Palestine Gaza, free of terror, violence and incitement in 80% of Gaza by mid-2005;

(4) followed by a Gaza Mefta – in place of the Gush Katif block of settlements, Kfar Darom and the Philadelphia Route – under the MFO in the remaining 20% of a duty-free, market economy Gaza Strip.

The settlements in Gaza Mefta would stay as industrial, agricultural and residential parks but solely under MFO jurisdiction. The settlers would become international traders, like many other nationalities there. Those settlers in Gaza outside of Gaza Mefta would move there or to Israel proper after compensation, thus ending Israel’s occupation of all of the Gaza Strip. Gaza Mefta should be acceptable to the settlers instead of the risk of evacuation, and because they would buy everything duty and tax free and retain their Israel health and retirement benefits.

The then Director General of Prime Minister Sharon’s office, Avigdor Yitzhaki, last July 31 expressed “great interest” in an MFO-administered free trade area along the Gaza shoreline.

Palestine Gaza could not threaten Israel because the UN Security Council would guarantee that the state would not have the sovereign right to heavy military equipment or an air force for self-defense, to forge military alliances or to allow foreign troops or police into its territory. Nor would it have the right to block flights over its territory. The US would surely veto any Security Council resolution sanctioning Israel for using military force to block a Palestinian violation, such as heavy arming.

The Multinational Force and Observers should be acceptable by both sides to administer and police Port Mefta to help build peaceful business coexistence between the two sides. Among its 11 members are Australia, Canada, France, Italy, New Zealand, Norway and the US, who leads it. The MFO would lease the 7 sq. km. (2.5 sq. mi.) area from the Palestinians for a renewable 35 years at a reasonable rent. Port Mefta would be a combined Singapore, Las Vegas and Riviera open to Arab and Israeli investors, among many other nationalities, who at their own expense would build and operate hotels, factories and office buildings on sites leased from the MFO.

The MFO international police force would comprise the MFO Fiji Battalion, transferred from the Sinai, and also include Palestinians, Israelis, Egyptians and Jordanians. Only Palestinians could hold nonexecutive jobs. The official language would be English and the official currency the US dollar. It would be enclosed by a high-tech anti-smuggling barrier and initially employ tens of thousands of Palestinians in heavy construction.

Israel would provide a safe passage corridor between the West Bank and Gaza for West Bank workers and merchants as long as the West Bank is free of violence. And Israel would complete its planned separation barrier in the West Bank and then remove all remaining check points there, limiting military activity to blocking any ‘ticking bombs’. No West Bank settlements would be removed except under a final peace agreement.

The temporary casino would be in air-conditioned tents in a highly secured area adjacent Gush Katif. Israel would allow Israelis to visit and gamble along with other tourists as long as Gaza is quiet. The Palestinian Authority would give an agreed percentage of the gambling jobs and profits to the Abu Samadana clan smugglers to convert them from smuggling to the gambling business in return for ending their tunnel-protecting violence. To promote that conversion Egypt would block all tunnels on its side of the border. To help keep Gaza quiet the authority would give good jobs to ceasefire-observing Hamas leaders.

Thousands of Palestinian jobs would also be provided by the harbor in Port Mefta ($70 million) built by the US Corps of Engineers and available for unlimited use by the Palestinians, with other MFO states funding the remaining Port Mefta infrastructure ($90 million); by a power-desalination plant, using cheap Palestinian natural gas to generate affordable water and electricity, funded by Germany ($250 million); and by a permanent Palestinian gambling casino twice the size of the Jericho casino (thus $100 million) funded by private investors. Plus more thousands of jobs constructing a raised highway bridge from Port Mefta to the West Bank with an extension to Jordan ($1.7 billion, partially toll funded) paid by the European Union and patrolled solely by the MFO.

All of those jobs would be threatened by violence that would drive investors and tourists away so they would help keep Gaza calm. The raised highway bridge, completed by mid-2006 and free of Israeli check points, would unite a calm West Bank with a booming Gaza and give West Bankers fast access to Gaza. And also give Jordanian businesses, many Palestinian owned, ready access to the West Bank, Gaza and the Mediterranean.

(Originally appeared in Ma’ariv)