Rice begins talks to rescue truce before Gaza pullout

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday began hastily arranged talks aimed at rescuing a shaky Israeli-Palestinian truce, to ensure calm when Israel pulls out of the Gaza Strip next month.

Rice began talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom in Jerusalem Thursday evening, shortly after her arrival. She will meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Friday and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday. Before the meeting with Shalom, Rice said the most important element of the Gaza pullout for Israel is increased security. She spoke of “the need to resist any effort by terrorists to destroy this moment of hope” for Palestinians and Israelis.

Rice arrived a day after thousands of Israeli opponents of the pullout ended a three-day demonstration without achieving their goal — a mass march on Gaza to reinforce settlers there planning to resist the withdrawal. Thousands of police and soldiers were mobilised to prevent the march.

However, the opponents pledged to try again and again. As a result, the government is considering advancing the beginning of the pullout from its current mid-August date, said Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s point man on Gaza issues.

“This confrontation saps a great deal of energy, disrupts the lives of all of the country’s residents, doesn’t lead to any advantage. So I would definitely weigh [an earlier withdrawal] favourably,” Olmert told Israel Radio.

The timetable might be an item for discussion between Israeli leaders and Rice, officials said.

Sharon delayed the withdrawal for a month in consideration for an annual Jewish mourning period for destruction of the biblical temples.

If pullout opponents “think these are appropriate days for protest… I don’t think the government has to act differently,” Olmert said, explaining why the evacuation might be advanced.

However, another senior official doubted the mid-August date would be changed because of logistic issues, the need to coordinate with the Palestinians and to prepare for the threat of Palestinian attacks.

Israeli and Palestinian officials have been meeting to coordinate the pullout, but a sudden surge of violence endangered the truce in effect since February, and a spate of clashes among rival Palestinian groups further complicated the picture — leading Rice to schedule talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on short notice.

US President George W. Bush has warmly embraced Israel’s “disengagement” plan for pulling out of Gaza and part of the West Bank. Now Israel is asking for material assistance — more than $2 billion to carry out the plan, which involves removing 9,000 settlers from their homes and possibly destroying the buildings afterward.

Standing next to Rice before their talks, Shalom said: “We’ll need the assistance of our friends in this matter, first and foremost the assistance of Dr Rice and the American administration.” Abbas welcomed the snap visit. “There are many things to talk about with Dr Rice, mainly the withdrawal from Gaza,” he told reporters on Thursday. “There is a great need for this withdrawal to be quiet.” In contrast, Hamas leaders have said that Israel is fleeing Gaza because of Palestinian attacks. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have renewed mortar and rocket barrages on Jewish settlements in Gaza and Israeli towns and villages just outside the territory, raising tensions.

An Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in the seaside Israeli city of Netanya that killed five last week, followed by salvos of dozens of rockets and mortars from Gaza, led Israel to mass troops on the border and threaten an invasion. Palestinian police moved to stop the rocket launching, triggering clashes between police and Hamas backers.

That was when Rice decided on a quick hop to the Mideast to help cool the passions. Egypt also stepped-up its presence, sending high level mediators to navigate among the squabbling Palestinian factions, and in the past few days, the clashes have abated.

Palestinians want the pullout to mark the first step towards an Israeli withdrawal from the rest of the West Bank. The Palestinians claim all of Gaza and the West Bank for a state.

In Ramallah on Wednesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said he hoped Rice’s visit would trigger a “comprehensive diplomatic process,” with Israel’s pullout from Gaza as the first stage.

Sharon’s view is that the pullout from Gaza and the northern West Bank will solidify Israel’s grip on existing West Bank settlement blocs.

As Rice arrived on Thursday, Sharon was visiting Ariel, deep in the West Bank, the second-largest settlement with 18,000 residents. “This area, I say, will be an inseparable part of the state of Israel,” he declared.

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