Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shuttled between Palestinian and Israeli officials Saturday, attempting to bridge gaps between the two sides as they struggle to coordinate Israel's planned mid-August withdrawal from 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank. No significant progress was reported, though U.S. officials said disputes over settler assets and the disposition of torn-down settler homes appeared close to resolution.
A key goal of Rice's trip was to stress to Palestinians and especially to Israelis that the removal of Jewish settlements from Gaza would help bolster the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, if it were successfully coordinated. The Israeli plan was originally conceived as a unilateral step when the Palestinian Authority was under the control of Yasser Arafat, who died last year.
Palestinian officials have complained that Israel has left them largely in the dark about key details of the departure, while Israeli officials have charged that the Palestinian Authority has failed to make the necessary improvements in its security forces to thwart armed groups operating in Gaza.
Palestinian officials want, in particular, easy access in and out of Gaza -- at crossing points with Israel and on the Egyptian border, at an international airport and at a seaport. Without that access, they say, the narrow coastal strip occupied by 1.4 million Palestinians, most of whom are destitute, will fail to thrive. Israeli officials acknowledge that Gaza needs to become economically viable, but they say such freedom of movement without effective security would put Israeli citizens at risk.
Rice, after meeting with Abbas and other senior Palestinian officials in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said that "when the Israelis withdraw from Gaza, it cannot be sealed or isolated." She said that the Palestinians needed freedom of movement in Gaza, that a link between Gaza and the West Bank was necessary and that roadblocks and other impediments in the West Bank must be lifted.
U.S. officials acknowledged that these are among the toughest issues to resolve. The Israelis have said they were willing to upgrade the border crossings in Gaza but want international funding. The Israeli government has rejected detailed plans to construct a rail and road link between Gaza and the West Bank but has approved a pilot project to allow pre-approved drivers and trucks to move between the Palestinian areas.
Rice told reporters that she came to the region, just one month after her last visit, "to help bring the weight of the United States" to the discussions. "I think we can close many of these issues very expeditiously with enough will and perhaps a change in view here or change in view there," she said.
The announcement of her trip last week appeared to have a calming effect on an outbreak of violence that had shattered a five-month truce. A few hours after she departed, however, Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a car traveling from a Gaza crossing point into Gush Katif, the largest Jewish settlement bloc in the strip. Israeli military officials said two Israeli civilians, a husband and wife, were killed in the attack, which occurred on a fence-lined road that runs inside the southern Gaza settlement area.
Following the attack, Israeli soldiers returned fire and killed one of the gunmen.
Diana Buttu, legal adviser to Abbas, said Palestinians were disappointed that Rice had been unable to prod the Israelis to resolve outstanding issues, which she said would only strengthen militant groups opposed to Abbas.
Two senior administration officials traveling with Rice said agreements appeared possible within days to dispose of rubble from dismantled settler homes and how to transfer greenhouses and other settler assets to the Palestinians. But Buttu said the Palestinians were opposed to a U.S. plan to use aid money intended for Palestinians to buy the greenhouses.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under rules set by the State Department, said both sides were posturing as they tried to negotiate broad understandings in advance of Israel's withdrawal. "Coordination is a nice word for what is in effect a negotiation," with both sides wary of making compromises, one official said.
The U.S. officials said Rice's role was to listen to the concerns of both sides and try to identify misunderstandings or mischaracterizations. Rice said she sometimes provides "an answer if one does not appear self-evident to each of the parties."
Correspondent Scott Wilson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Rice greets Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Rice said Gaza "cannot be sealed or isolated."