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Israeli outposts still growing

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It has receded from memory amid mutual bloodletting and plans for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, but about a year ago there was a Middle East peace process named the road map.

As steps towards peace, the Israeli outpost of Givat HaTamar and dozens of other outposts established during Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's tenure without formal government authorization were to be removed from West Bank hilltops.

But with the road map moribund and international attention focusing on a possible Gaza pullout, Givat HaTamar and other West Bank outposts are steadily becoming permanent communities, fixtures on a future map of Israel that is to include wide swaths of occupied territory that Palestinians envision as the heartland of their future state.

That, along with Israel's construction of a West Bank security barrier whose legality is to be decided Friday by the International Court of Justice, is something settlement critics say will complicate peacemaking.

"The real picture is that everything that is not evacuated is growing," says Dror Etkes, who monitors settlements for the Peace Now movement. He says that 48 outposts established after March 2001 are still in place, almost all of them inhabited. He adds that out of 26 outposts that were removed since the road map was announced, just five were inhabited. But a senior government official says that 80 outposts have been removed, more than the total that ever existed according to Peace Now.

The road map's stated goal is a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Palestinians have long complained that settlement expansion negates viability by reducing the future state's territory and breaking it up into enclaves. The Palestinians have not implemented security reforms required by the road map.

After a meeting this week with Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom, US Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly expressed "disappointment" over what he said was the slow pace of Israel's outpost removal.

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