Rice says Palestinians must stick to ceasefire
By Saul Hudson
SHANNON, Ireland (Reuters) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Palestinians needed to keep to a ceasefire that has been shaky to ensure a planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip can go ahead.
Washington sees a successful pullout in August as key to building momentum toward a final peace settlement and Rice said she would focus on fostering coordination between the sides for the evacuation during a weekend trip to Israel and the West Bank.
Israel says non-violence is essential for carrying out the withdrawal from all 21 settlements and that it could seize towns in the area temporarily if gunmen carry out attacks during the pullout.
And Rice -- on her second trip to the region this year -- emphasized the responsibility of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to ensure militants keep to a ceasefire commitment he negotiated with them.
"I am certainly going to talk to the president about the need for the Palestinians to play a critical role in providing a secure environment in which the Gaza disengagement can take place," Rice, who will meet Abbas later on Saturday, told reporters as she flew to the region via Ireland.
"Obviously that means that the calm that he has discussed with the various Palestinian factions is going to have to hold," she said.
After declaring a truce with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in February to end more than four years of violence, Abbas coaxed the Palestinian factions, including militant groups sworn to Israel's destruction, into agreeing to a "period of calm" until the end of the year.
Militants in the sliver of land on the Mediterranean coast have stepped up mortar bomb and rocket barrages against Israelis in recent weeks. They have said the attacks were in response to "Israeli aggressions."
Israel is wary of moving too quickly on an agreed "roadmap" to peace and a two-state solution because of fears anti-Israeli Palestinian militants could be using the ceasefire to arm themselves.
"I think we'd have to be concerned about the amassing of arms -- absolutely," Rice said, without stating if the United States believes the groups are building up their weapons stocks.
But Rice also stressed the importance of going ahead with the pullout.
"A successful withdrawal from Gaza ... will lead to greater confidence between the parties, greater trust between the parties and, I believe, an ability to accelerate progress on the roadmap," she said.
That appeared at odds with Israel.
A U.S. official, who has been briefed on contacts in recent weeks between American and Israeli officials, said Sharon was hoping for a "cooling off" period that would halt moves along the roadmap for about six months after the withdrawal.
He is worried the United States will press him for more concessions after the withdrawal and wants Palestinians to show they can keep the violence at bay, the U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said.
Rice may have reinforced such concerns as she used tough language objecting to an Israeli plan to build 3,500 housing units east of Jerusalem that Palestinians fear would prevent them having the contiguous state they want.
"We don't intend that the Israelis try to create facts on the ground. They simply cannot engage in activities that are supposed to prejudge a final status outcome," she said when asked about the building plans.
(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem)
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