Rice says time is short to nail down Gaza handover
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AFP) - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned that time was running short to nail down details of Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip and prodded the Palestinians to do much more to boost security.
Israeli military radio also reported that she pressed the Jewish state for "substantial" measures to improve the lives of Palestinians and for the release of more prisoners to keep up the good will in peace efforts.
After a day of talks with Palestinian and Israeli officials at the start of her first major Middle East tour, Rice gave new urgency to finalizing Israel's plans for the landmark withdrawal due to start in two months.
She said both sides must come to terms on thorny issues related to the scheduled mid-August pullout, such as border control, freedom of movement, distribution of assets and security roles.
"There is no more time to simply put problems on the agenda," Rice told a joint news conference with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas. "This now has to be an active process of resolving these (issues)."
"Both parties will have to do their part if this is to be a peaceful and orderly withdrawal from the Gaza. So this coordination function is absolutely critical."
But Rice reported no headway on any of the fronts and renewed her concerns over progress by the Palestinians in reforming their security services and cracking down on violence by militants.
She said Abbas had taken some "good concrete steps" but "much more needs to be done, particularly to use actively the security forces to combat lawlessness and to combat terrorism."
Rice also stressed Washington would continue to boycott the militant Islamic group Hamas, which has carried out a large number of anti-Israeli attacks but looks set for a strong showing in the next legislative elections.
"The United States has no contacts with Hamas because the United States believes Hamas is a terrorist organisation," she said. "There is an elected (Palestinian) president... and that's whom we'll deal with."
Hamas condemned Rice's comments, arguing it was a legitimate Palestinian political force.
"The United States wants to continue to portray Hamas as terrorists although Hamas is participating in elections and has won the local elections," spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP.
Abbas said the Palestinians were committed to maintaining a ceasefire and coordinating the Gaza withdrawal but rolled out his own complaints on Israel's settlement activity and construction of a security barrier.
"This is a huge problem not only for the truce, but for the entire peace process," he told the news conference.
Abbas and his aides also urged Rice to help resolve a slew of issues involved in the pullout, including borders, safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank and a closed airport in southern Gaza.
"We told her that if there are no answers to these issues the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank will be a failure," a senior Palestinian official told AFP.
The exchanges highlighted the work facing the Israelis, Palestinians and Americans as they try to pull off a troop withdrawal that could reinvigorate efforts to apply a broader "roadmap" for ending nearly five years of conflict.
Rice traveled to the region at the behest of President George W. Bush and brought into the talks General William Ward, her top security adviser in the conflict, and former World Bank chairman James Wolfensohn, point man on reconstruction.
Palestinian officials quoted her as saying she would make additional trips to the region before the withdrawal. But a senior US official was non-committal, saying: "I'm not going to rule it out, but I'm not going to commit to it."
After her talks in Ramallah, Rice headed back to Jerusalem where she had dinner with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and was due to meet Sunday with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Israeli military radio reported that Rice urged Mofaz to take new steps to ease the burden of the Palestinians in occupied areas and to free additional prisoners as demanded by Abbas.
Speaking to reporters before her arrival at Tel Aviv airport, Rice had tough words for Israeli plans to expand Jewish settlements east of Jerusalem.
Sharon has made clear that his Gaza pullout is partly designed to relieve international pressure for a more comprehensive pullout from the West Bank.
"We don't intend that the Israelis try to create facts on the ground," Rice said. "They simply cannot engage in activities that are supposed to somehow prejudge a final status outcome."
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