The Israeli evacuation of 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza has begun and, despite impassioned obstruction by settlers and their supporters, it looks like the pullout will be completed close to on schedule.

The cost of protecting the heavily fortified islands of 8,500 settlers occupying a disproportionate share of real estate among nearly 1.4 million Palestinians had become too great.

But what precisely are the Israelis leaving behind? One of the most impoverished and densely populated places on earth. Israel captured Gaza from the Egyptians in the 1967 war, and it says something about Gaza that when the two nations signed a peace treaty, Egypt didn’t want it back.

With the Palestinians perversely cheering them on, the Israelis are removing or destroying every trace of their presence, including the demolition of 2,800 homes. James Wolfensohn, the U.S. envoy and former head of the World Bank, intervened by privately raising $14 million, including $500,000 of his own money, to buy and preserve the commercial greenhouses of the departing Israelis.

And that’s perhaps the only economic good news for Gaza. The unemployment rate is over 50 percent and the Israeli government is talking about barring all Palestinian workers from Israel proper, the traditional source of employment.

Over 80 percent of Gaza’s families live below the poverty line, and the situation is likely to get worse. Half the population is under 16, and the birth rate is one of the highest in the world. Gaza’s exports are modest — mainly fruit and flowers — and access to markets is difficult because Israel still controls Gaza’s borders and air space.

Gaza has no functioning seaport or airport. Israel closed both of them and destroyed the airport runway. Israel also continues to control Gaza’s water and electricity.

The government of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is problematic, as is its ability to provide security. Abbas, who has called for elections Jan. 21, faces a serious political rival in the militant group Hamas.

With Israel’s withdrawal, Gaza is now de facto an independent state. The so-called Quartet — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — must quickly take the lead in providing investment and markets for Gaza and the Israelis in facilitating trade and travel. Allowing Gaza to become a festering open-air prison will do no one in the Mideast any good. The antidote to terrorism and ending the cycle of reprisals is hope and prosperity.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)