World powers urge Israel to ease checkpoints
By Saul Hudson
LONDON (Reuters) - World powers on Thursday urged Israel to allow Palestinians to move more freely around occupied territories, echoing a key demand from Palestinians ahead of the Jewish state's planned withdrawal from Gaza.
The Quartet of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations called on Israel "to take immediate steps, without endangering Israeli security, ... to facilitate rehabilitation and reconstruction by easing the flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza and the West Bank and between them."
The four big diplomatic players also urged the Israelis and Palestinians to meet more frequently to hammer out plans for the mid-August Israeli pullout of settlers from Gaza, which they hope will spur peace moves.
"Contacts between the parties should now be intensified at all levels," the Quartet said in a statement issued after the powers met at ministerial level in London.
Major powers have generally praised the sides for working more closely together in recent weeks over the withdrawal.
But Israeli and Palestinian leaders have repeatedly disagreed over how to balance the Jewish state's efforts at stopping militants entering Israel with Palestinians' needs to move more quickly through long lines at security checkpoints.
Overall, the Quartet statement underscored the need for both sides to take quick decisions because of the withdrawal deadline.
That sense of urgency came after an Israeli-Palestinian summit this week, which ended with the Palestinians expressing disappointment at what they saw as Israel's reluctance to compromise.
"The Quartet notes that less than two months remain until the announced start to disengagement, and emphasizes the urgent need for Israel and the Palestinians to work directly and cooperatively with each other," the statement said.
The Quartet's previous statement in May, after a meeting in Moscow, said a successful withdrawal would involve easing up on checkpoints.
But on Thursday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana used more direct language to spur quicker Israeli action.
Israel immediately responded with an assurance that it wanted to cooperate with the Palestinians and had already proposed ways of making it easier for them to move around.
"Israel wants the situation in the Palestinian territories to improve and we will do whatever we can to facilitate that aim," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
But he also said Israel's ability to take such steps would depend in part on the Palestinians curbing violent groups. He recalled how Israel thwarted a female suicide bomber at a Gaza crossing this week who planned to attack an Israeli hospital.
Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan al-Khatib called the Quartet statement "fair, timely and significant."
"For this Israeli unilateral disengagement to be constructive and useful rather than harmful, the Palestinians should have the ability to move freely within the occupied territories."
He also criticized Israel for not coordinating closely enough over the withdrawal.
"Israel hasn't been forthcoming in coordinating whatever they are planning to do. They have been keeping us in the dark completely, and this is affecting negatively our ability to plan for the day after."
(Additional reporting by Cynthia Johnston in Ramallah)
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