-- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, warning that time was running out to coordinate Israel's departure from the Gaza Strip, prodded Palestinian officials Saturday to improve the performance of their security forces to ensure a smooth transfer of control.
"Much more needs to be done, particularly to use actively the security forces to combat lawlessness and combat terrorism," Rice said at a joint news conference with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel plans to withdraw soldiers and settlers from Gaza in August, and Rice's trip to Israel and the West Bank is aimed at persuading the two fractious parties to begin to work together. With a note of urgency in her voice, Rice told reporters she made the trip "to encourage the parties to actively now, concretely, solve these problems. There is no more time to simply put problems on the agenda."
Rice also met Saturday with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and was scheduled to meet Sunday with other Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as part of a week-long trip through the Middle East and Europe.
U.S. officials say that a successful withdrawal from Gaza will bolster the standing of both Abbas and Sharon, who are politically weak, and help re-energize the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the road map. By contrast, a troubled departure, especially one that allows militant groups to gain control of Gaza, would be a huge setback. "If we don't concentrate and do this well then we're going to be thrown back," Rice said.
While a cease-fire has largely held for more than four months, Israeli troops on Saturday shot and killed a Palestinian who had joined in an attack on Israel's Kfar Darom settlement in Gaza, an army statement said.
Rice met with Abbas for about an hour, much of it with only an interpreter present. A Palestinian official with knowledge of the meeting said that Abbas raised four key issues, all centering on Palestinian fears that Gaza will effectively be turned into a prison camp after the Israelis leave. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the Palestinian official said Abbas told Rice that the Gaza withdrawal would not succeed unless Israel gave up control of the Philadelphi corridor along the border of Egypt, roadblocks and other barriers were eased at crossing points in and out of Gaza, Israel dropped its policy requiring all goods to be offloaded and reloaded at the border, and Gaza's airport was reopened.
Israel has spent months negotiating with officials in Cairo for Egyptian soldiers to monitor the border with Gaza, but the discussions have become mired in a dispute about whether the soldiers can be deployed along the length of the Israeli border. Israeli officials are also developing a series of high-tech terminals to speed the passage of goods, a project for which Congress recently approved $50 million in funding.
Israel and the Palestinians remain far apart on a range of issues and often seem unable to hear each other's concerns.
Rice's comments on Palestinian security efforts, for instance, echoed Israeli complaints about the struggling security forces, which are being streamlined and upgraded with the assistance of a U.S. Army general. The Palestinian official, however, insisted that Rice did not dwell on the issue in several hours of meetings with various Palestinian officials. Instead, the official said, the meetings were focused much more on Palestinian concerns about Israeli actions -- and Rice promised to raise those concerns with the Israelis.
But an Israeli official said Rice dealt at length with the Palestinian security issue when she met later with Mofaz, including concerns that militant groups have been amassing arms during the cease-fire. Rice is expected to press that issue further when she meets with Sharon and other top officials on Sunday.
Abbas has attempted to co-opt militant groups, such as the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, by bringing the organization into the political process and not directly calling for it to it disarm. But U.S. and Israeli officials contend that Hamas is stockpiling weapons in preparation for another spasm of violence.
During the news conference, Abbas sidestepped a question about Hamas stockpiling weapons. "We are committed to the calm in order to arrive at a good result," he said. "We are committed to ensuring that we have one authority, one law, one legitimate weapon -- and have political pluralism."