Israelis, Palestinians need to coordinate Gaza withdrawal

Sunday, June 19, 2005

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Time is running out for Palestinians and Israelis to resolve differences over a planned withdrawal of Jewish settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Saturday.

Despite public pledges of cooperation, each side has a list of complaints about the other's will or ability to carry off the mid-August pullout.

"There is no more time to simply put problems on the agenda," Rice said after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and members of the newly formed Palestinian Cabinet.

She planned to carry the same message to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at their meeting Sunday in Jerusalem.

"Both parties will have to do their parts," Rice said. Genuine coordination and cooperation are essential, she said at a news conference with Abbas at the Palestinian government's headquarters.

Israel and Palestinian officials have met in recent weeks to try to ensure that Israel's pullout from Gaza and four northern West Bank settlements will not create chaos. No agreement has resulted.

Abbas, who plans a summit meeting with Sharon on Tuesday, promised "total coordination with the Israeli side" toward a peaceful pullout.

He emphasized that the Palestinians were committed to a 4-month-old truce with Israel. But he also complained that Israel repeatedly had violated the agreement.

The number of attacks has dropped dramatically since the cease-fire in February. Yet attacks by militants and raids by Israeli soldiers continue.

International concerns about the Gaza plan center on Israel's commitment to leave on time and without violence, and on the Palestinians' ability to control militants and establish a sustainable government once the Israelis are gone.

Rice said Abbas has made progress to ready Palestinian security and defense forces. Much more work lies ahead, she said, "particularly to use actively the security forces to combat lawlessness and to combat terrorism."

Rice's visit was her second trip to see Abbas in Ramallah. It is the same hilltop compound where Arafat holed up near the end of his life, and where he is buried.

Gaza is a sliver of Mediterranean coastline that Israel seized from Egypt in 1967. The densely populated land has about 1 million people, including about 6,500 Jewish settlers.

After Gaza, attention would turn to Israeli withdrawal from settlements on the West Bank and then to establishment of borders for an eventual Palestinian state.

Palestinians contend that Israelis have tried to sabotage a peace deal by building Jewish settlements outside the borders of Israel proper. Once in place, the settlements are difficult to remove or abandon, as the Gaza situation illustrates.

Opinion polls show that the Israeli public's support for the Gaza plan -- which was initially at more than 70 percent -- is dropping. Recent polls show support for the plan is wavering around 50 percent, and opposition has risen slightly.

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