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Experts Wonder if Israel's Settlement Evacuation Can Jumpstart Peace Talks

During the past five years of violence, efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table have gone nowhere. Now Israel's evacuation of its settlements in the Gaza Strip and a small sliver of the northern West Bank, is being widely hailed as a unique opportunity to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talk.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to unilaterally "disengage," to dismantle 25 Jewish settlements, initially received only lukewarm support from the international community and was viewed with great skepticism by the Palestinians.

By the time the last settlers were evacuated the move was being widely hailed as courageous and as a unique opportunity to return to real peace talks. The Bush administration said it expects both sides to follow up and get back to the internationally backed road map peace plan.

Initially, Prime Minister Sharon made it clear the withdrawal was prompted by the high cost in both money and Israeli lives of protecting the settlements. But, Sharon spokesman, Ranaan Gissin tells VOA there is now hope the disengagement might jump-start peace efforts.

"We're willing to join in that, but only going forward," he said. "Forward means - stopping terrorist activities, dismantling the terrorist organizations, collecting illegal weapons, enforcing law and order, instituting reforms both in the security services as well as in the government institutions, in their economic institutions."

Mr. Gissin says if the Palestinians begin to do these things, the Israelis will respond in kind and a return to the road map is possible.

Israeli leaders say the ball is now in the Palestinians' court and that is something Diana Buttu rejects. Ms. Buttu is advisor to the Palestinian team on the Israeli withdrawal and she tells VOA those demands are not fair.

"When I hear these statements, 'the ball is now in the Palestinians' hands,' it reminds me and it becomes very clear that people don't understand that this is a military occupation and that there is such a huge power imbalance [between Israel and the Palestinians] and that it's really up to Israel to end its occupation and not up to the Palestinians to prove themselves worthy of their freedom," said Ms. Buttu.

Ms. Buttu says the Palestinians have taken steps to show they're serious about peace, including negotiations with militant groups, which have led to a period of calm and have drastically reduced attacks against Israel. The Palestinian Authority has also begun to implement political and economic reforms and is to hold parliamentary elections in January.

Ms. Buttu says the two sides should look beyond the piecemeal steps of the road map to what she calls a "holistic" approach to long-term peace. She says evacuating the 25 Jewish settlements is a good beginning, but Israel needs to do more.

"Unless it's accompanied at the end of the day with more settlement evacuation, a complete freeze to the settlement expansion, then I'm afraid that we're really going to be getting nowhere," she added.

Prime Minister Sharon has clearly said Israel will not unilaterally dismantle any more settlements. He's also repeatedly said that major settlement blocks in the West Bank will remain in Israeli hands in any future peace deal. That is something Palestinians have feared all along, that Mr. Sharon decided to withdraw from Gaza only to consolidate Israel's control over the West Bank.

Not so, says Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"We have said time and again, that the pullout from Gaza is in no way an attempt to trade off Gaza for the West Bank," he said.

But, Palestinian suspicions about Israeli intentions are likely to only increase after the recent Israeli decision to confiscate more Palestinian land to complete its security barrier around the settlement of Maale Adumim, just east of Jerusalem. And, an Israeli official has confirmed that the overall population in West Bank settlements increased by nearly 13,000 in the past year.

Many Israelis and Palestinians do hope the disengagement might spark a return to full peace negotiations. But, just how fragile the situation is was highlighted by another spike in violence. Just a day after the last settlers left the 25 settlements, two Jewish religious students were stabbed in Jerusalem's Old City and five Palestinians were killed in an Israeli raid in Tulkarem.