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US Officials Say Israel, Palestinians Coordinating Gaza Pullout

Top U.S. officials have given a generally upbeat assessment of the coordination between Israel and the Palestinians on the upcoming withdrawal of Jewish settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip. The remarks came during a hearing before a congressional committee.

The assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, David Welch, told members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that there has been some progress during discussions between Israel and the Palestinians over the pullout from the Gaza Strip.

The withdrawal of about 8,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza and four small settlements in the West Bank is scheduled to begin in mid-August and Mr. Welch says discussions in the weeks ahead are very important to ensure the disengagement is successful.

Mr. Welch says a smooth transition will boost chances for the "road map" peace plan, the goal of which is a peaceful Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

"Israel, the Palestinians, the United States and the international community are committed to making disengagement a success, as a successful Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, an orderly Palestinian takeover there, will help reenergize the 'road map' and bring us closer to realizing the two-state vision laid out by President Bush," he said.

Mr. Welch did express concern about a recent increase in violence in Gaza and the West Bank, following months of relative calm after a cease-fire agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr. Welch criticized Syria for supporting militant Palestinian groups.

"We are deeply concerned about the fact that certain Palestinian extremist groups have offices and headquarters in Damascus and, under the circumstances, I think that is a dangerous indication of Syrian support for the activities of these groups," he said. "These groups, in particular, have conducted actions, including recently, that threaten this process that is under way."

U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Ward, who was appointed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to help coordinate security issues between Israel and the Palestinians, says he believes both sides are generally moving in the right direction.

"It is my belief that both President Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon are committed to peace and to the immediate task at hand associated with disengagement," he said. "Now success, for sure, rests with both parties. They have done things, with respect to expressing their commitment to this process, but they must follow through on those commitments."

Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, who is now helping to coordinate the economic aspects of the Gaza withdrawal, says there are four keys necessary for the Palestinians to successfully govern Gaza following the Israeli pullout.

"You have to have decent government," he said. "You have to have a legal system that works. You have to have a financial system that is transparent and provides services and you must fight corruption. If you don't do those four things you can't run an effective state."

Mr. Wolfensohn says he is urging the Palestinians to develop a three-year economic plan to present to potential donor nations.

He is estimating such a plan will cost $3 billion per year.