Correction to This Article
An Oct. 5 article incorrectly said that an agreement negotiated by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave Palestinians some control over their borders for the first time since 1967. Palestinians had not controlled their borders before this agreement.

Rice Cites Concern for Palestinians, But Low Expectations Mark Visit

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 5, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Oct. 4 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged Wednesday to "redouble" U.S. efforts to alleviate the economic plight of Palestinians facing escalating tensions and the threat of a humanitarian crisis. But U.S. officials cautioned not to expect any significant breakthroughs as prospects for a renewed Arab-Israeli peace process seem further away than ever.

At a joint news conference here with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, Rice said the Bush administration was "very concerned" about humanitarian conditions and the economic situation in the Palestinian territories. "It is a great sadness, during this time of Ramadan, that Palestinians, many of them, are deprived of basic needs," she said.

Abbas, underscoring the dire state of the peace process, said talks with the Hamas movement on formation of a national unity government are dead and suggested he may dissolve the Palestinians' seven-month-old government.

"The dialogue now does not exist," Abbas said. If Hamas continues to balk at forming a unity government, which would force it to recognize Israel's right to exist, Abbas said, he was prepared to use his constitutional powers to resolve the political deadlock. "All options are open," he said.

"The only option I reject is civil war," Abbas said, noting that clashes between Hamas and his Fatah party over the past week have been the deadliest since the Palestinian Authority was created in 1994.

On Wednesday, a Hamas official in the West Bank town of Qalqilya was assassinated by four masked gunmen who fled the scene. Asked about the killing and the recent violence, a senior Palestinian police official at the presidential compound in Ramallah called Hamas "donkeys," reflecting the deep-rooted antipathy between the two largest Palestinian factions.

Rice, on her sixth trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories as secretary of state, has come with fewer prospects for major progress in the near future than on any previous visit. She is struggling just to revive an agreement to open border crossings between the Gaza Strip and the outside world that she brokered in November after all-night negotiations.

The agreement gave Palestinians some control over their own border for the first time since the 1967 Middle East war. But according to Palestinian and U.S. sources, the border has been closed for all but about seven days since June 25, when Palestinian guerrillas captured an Israeli soldier. It reopened Wednesday and was scheduled to be open Thursday, U.S. and Arab sources said, coinciding with Rice's trip and Palestinian requests for relief during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

During their one-on-one discussions, Abbas gave Rice a lengthy document detailing the Palestinians' needs on cross-border movement and ways to push implementation of the 11-month-old accord, according to the Palestinian president's chief of staff, Rafiq Husseini.

Rice is trying to win agreement from the Israelis to ensure that the pivotal Karni crossing between Gaza and Israel is open for Palestinian exports in time for the harvest, which begins in about three weeks, according to U.S. and Western sources.

After she held talks over dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem on Wednesday night, the Israelis indicated willingness to open Karni in the near future but did not give a date. Rice is scheduled to hold talks Thursday morning with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

Another Palestinian proposal on the table, backed by the United States and its allies, calls for almost doubling Abbas's presidential guard to about 6,000 members and widening the force's mandate for security purposes. A senior State Department official said the presidential guard has proved to be the Palestinians' most effective security force and is already deployed at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company