Powell praises Israelis, prods Palestinians

Saturday, June 21, 2003

JERICHO, West Bank -- Secretary of State Colin Powell pored over detailed territorial maps with the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority in separate meetings Friday, praising the Israelis for efforts toward an eventual peace settlement and urging speed on the Palestinians.

In return, he was assured the Palestinians would move quickly to take over from Israeli forces responsibility for security on the Gaza Strip.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a news conference after his meeting with Powell that Israel would "exhaust every avenue" in the search for peace. He cautioned, however, that fulfillment of the U.S.-backed "road map" was contingent on the Palestinians' curbing terrorism.

"The Palestinian Authority must fight terror organizations, it must disarm them, it must make sure that their infrastructure no longer exists," Sharon said.

Powell said he was encouraged by the steps Israel has taken in recent weeks, including release of some Palestinian prisoners and dismantling of structures in the occupied territories that settlers built without government authorization.

'Move quickly'

Powell's praise for the Israelis contrasted with his subsequent admonition to Palestinian leaders.

"When I meet with Prime Minister Abbas this afternoon, I will urge him to move quickly, very quickly, to implement security reforms and to come forward with specific plans to take responsibility for security in Gaza and Bethlehem," Powell said.

On Gaza, at least, Powell received assurances he was seeking from Mahmoud Abbas.

"The Palestinians told us they want to move on Gaza," a senior State Department official said, commenting after Powell and Abbas had an afternoon meeting in this West Bank town a 30-minute drive from Jerusalem.

With an assist from U.S. special envoy John Wolf, Israel and the Palestinians have been discussing the withdrawal of Israeli forces and their replacement by Palestinians. Israel is unlikely to agree to any such plan until the safety of Israeli settlers in the area is assured.

Israeli roadblocks and travel restrictions have paralyzed life in Gaza and the West Bank over the last 32 months of violence.

Abbas, who reaffirmed his commitment to the road map, called attention to its promise of an independent Palestine within two years.

He complained at a news conference about the murder of Palestinians and of continued Israeli settlement activities. Another sore point is establishment by the Israelis of fences that "separate the Palestinian citizens from their own land," Abbas said.

He seemed less impressed than Powell with Israel's dismantling of unauthorized outposts, which he said was a trivial exercise.

Abbas urged Israel to release Palestinian detainees, lift restrictions on the movement of Palestinians and end provocative acts.

Powell exhorted both sides to live up to commitments they made to President Bush at the road map peace summit in Aqaba, Jordan, two weeks ago. In his separate meetings with the two sides, Powell pored over detailed maps of the territories and urged quick action by both lest they lose momentum generated at Aqaba.

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