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Israel's Gaza Pullout Prompts New Dynamics

Israel has withdrawn roughly nine thousand settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. But there are still a number of political, security and economic challenges to be resolved by both Israel and the Palestinians that could affect the broader peace effort.

For the first time since the end of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, there are no Israelis living in Gaza. They have been evacuated from 21 settlements there, and from four others on the West Bank, in what Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon calls a "disengagement" from the Palestinians after years of terror attacks. With the evacuation accomplished, hopes are rising that both sides can now take further steps along the U.S.- backed "Roadmap to Peace."

Mr. Sharon's move has drawn both praise and condemnation within and outside of Israel. Arthur Hughes, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs during the Clinton Administration, views the Israeli leader's actions as pragmatic as well as mindful of international opinion.

"He said many times it just wasn't tenable to maintain those settlements in Gaza in a sea of Palestinians. There were human lives being lost almost every week in order to maintain the security of those settlements. There was also an international political burden. I think Israel's national interests were clearly served by this," Mr. Hughes says.

"Historic Step"

President Bush has called the disengagement "a historic step that reflects the bold leadership of Prime Minister Sharon. " But analyst Ariel Cohen at The Heritage Foundation in Washington worries that Israel may have made a disastrous mistake.

"Mr. Sharon," he says "took a 180 degree turn from the tough security oriented political leader he used to be. I'm afraid that withdrawal under pressure of terrorist attacks may bring Israel borders that will be indefensible."

Naseer Aruri at the Palestine Center in Washington argues that Israel left Gaza to tighten its grip on the West Bank with settlement expansion and completion of a security barrier.

"It is not difficult to see the de-facto quid pro quo -- redeploy from Gaza and solidify around Jerusalem and the settlements of the West Bank. Sharon intends to build and build and extend the settlements, cutting the West Bank forever north and south."

The "Roadmap to Peace" insists on a freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.

Political Challenges on Both Sides

The Israeli disengagement from Gaza comes at a time of heightened political activity for both Israelis and Palestinians. Shortly before the pullout, Israel's Finance Minister and former Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, resigned, criticizing Mr. Sharon's decision. Uri Avnery, a former member of Israel's parliament, says both men are betting that they can politically emerge on top.

"If this thing will work out," he says, "I think that Sharon will come out as the man who has stood firm, practically alone, and seen the thing through. If, on the other hand, the impression will be left behind that this whole thing was ill-considered, then Benjamin Netanyahu may be elected the leader of the Likud [party, which currently leads the Israeli government in a coalition]."

The Palestinians also face political choices. In recent municipal elections, Hamas, which promotes violent confrontation with Israel, emerged as a serious rival to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Naseer Aruri at the Palestine Center says parliamentary elections slated for January will be strongly affected by the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations during the next few months.

"Hamas' performance would be connected to the kind of occupation that is going to prevail. If the economy is going to improve, the credit is going to go to the Palestine Authority. If it deteriorates, voters will support the opposition," says Mr. Aruri.

Creating Economic Viability in Gaza

Both the Palestinians and the Israelis see economic development in Gaza as a way out of misery for many of its inhabitants, and, hopefully, something that would diminish militancy and terror attacks. Some $3 billion has been made available from the World Bank, the European Union and other sources, to help Gaza build a viable economy. The Israelis left behind in Gaza a number of greenhouses and other agricultural infrastructure that Palestinians can now use.

But Israel will continue to control Gaza's borders, except for the one to the south with Egypt. Former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Arthur Hughes says that could pose problems for Gaza's economic development.

"How will things get into and get out of Gaza? This has not been fully resolved," he says. "A lot of it will depend on Israel's perception of the Palestinian Authority and its ability to maintain security in Gaza, and security of those goods that would come out of Gaza, transiting Israel for export."

Stopping Terror to Further the Peace Process

The Israelis, backed by the United States, have made it clear that the Palestinian Authority must aggressively stop terror attacks if development and the "Roadmap" peace process are to move forward. But former Israeli MP Uri Avnery says that demand is nearly impossible to meet.

"The idea that the Palestinian Authority is able to declare war on these fighting organizations -- Hamas and the [Islamic] Jihad -- which are considered national heroes by the Palestinian population, is a utopia. What they [the Palestinian Authority] can do is they have brought these fighting organizations to agree to a cease-fire. This is the best they can do."

The long-term implications of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip will not be fully known for perhaps months, even years. What is known is that the stakes are quite high for both Israel and the Palestinians, and that actions taken by both sides in the immediate future will affect the way millions of people on both sides will live for years to come.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other "Focus" reports, click here