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Israelis and Palestinians Wonder What Will Happen After Gaza Withdrawals

In less than a week, Israel will begin one of the most controversial strategic moves in its history, withdrawing its military and settlers from the Gaza Strip. The Gaza withdrawal is not a part of the “Roadmap” peace process championed by the international community. But both the Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to move forward with the Roadmap. Jeff Swicord takes at look at some of the obstacles both sides face in implementing the plan, and asks the question: What comes next?

New construction within the West Bank settlement of Ma' ale Adumim, outside Jerusalem. As the Gaza withdrawal grows closer, a debate is raging within Israel over what comes next. At issue is what impact West Bank settlement growth and the route of the security barrier will have on a future peace process.

Daniel Levy is with the Geneva Initiative Israel, an organization working to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He says, "One of the things that has happened is that in parallel with the focus on the Gaza withdrawal, there have been things going on below the radar screen of much of the international and local Israeli attention in the West Bank, particularly around Jerusalem. The most prominent is in the so called Ma'ale Adumim E1 area."

The E1 area encompasses Ma' ale Adumim, the largest West Bank settlement. Israel had planned to build 3500 new housing units here, in violation of the Roadmap peace process, but halted work after objections from the international community.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, responded, "From our point of view, and Prime Minister Sharon has expressed this, in any sort of final status agreement we believe, that there should be contiguity between Jerusalem and between Ma' ale Adumim. That is something that we believe should happen in the long-term. "

The Palestinians disagree. They say any construction within, or outside existing settlement boundaries is a violation of the Roadmap.

Khalil Tufakji is the Director of the Maps and Survey Department at Orient House, a non-government organization that advises the Palestinian Authority. "Everybody speaks about Roadmaps, but Israel makes more facts, more reality, on the ground.” he says. “The wall which now is under construction, it means that Israel is drawing the map between the Palestinians and Israel, without negotiation with the Palestinians."

The path of the security barrier now under construction reaches as far as 6 kilometers deep inside the West Bank, significantly cutting territory under Palestinian control.

"The route of the separation barrier, which is perhaps the key here, because it is some kind of statement of intent as to what happens in the future,” says Daniel Levy. “The separation barrier routing doesn't limit itself to the built up area of Ma' ale Adumim. The separation barrier routing takes the entire area well beyond Ma' ale Adumim heading out towards the Jordanian border… and both North and South of Ma' ale Adumim."

Israel is planning to replace the old checkpoints with 20 new crossing points along the security barrier.

Mr. Levy says this only adds to the notion that this is a permanent border. He argues that all this spells trouble for the Roadmap. "We have seen how difficult it is to undo the settlements in Gaza and the four settlements in the northern West Bank which are in Sharon's disengagement plan. The more facts on the ground that you create in the West Bank, the more difficult the viable two-state solution is. That's why the U.S. administration has consistently come out against this creation of unilateral facts on the ground."

Many in Israel, like those at the Geneva Initiative, are concerned that the Gaza withdrawal is about preventing progress in the West Bank and freezing the status quo indefinitely. Several Sharon aides have publicly commented that the preferred next step was to put the Roadmap "in formaldehyde," meaning, on hold for the foreseeable future.

"If it is left up to Sharon, he will say, ‘No movement until the Palestinians deliver a number of preconditions.’ And judging by past experience Sharon will place the preconditions teasingly out of reach for the Palestinians. So I think Sharon's preferred option is not to have any forward movement," says Mr. Levy.

But Mark Regev strongly disagrees.

"Israel has committed to moving forward, Israel has accepted the Roadmap as the path for moving forward,” he says. “And I would tell the Palestinian people the following: My prime minister has said to you that we don't want to rule over the Palestinian people. We are ready for a Palestinian state living in peace and cooperation with the state of Israel."