Rice pushes cooperation in Middle East


RAMALLAH, West Bank - Conveying a growing sense of urgency, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Palestinians and Israelis yesterday to intensify contacts and resolve issues vital to an orderly Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

"There is no more time to simply put problems on the agenda," she told a news conference after talks with Palestinian leaders, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "This now has to be an active process of resolving these problems."

Rice is scheduled to discuss the Gaza pullout today with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and senior members of his government.

She also reiterated comments about the importance of making a success of the Gaza withdrawal to re-energize a long-dormant American-backed peace plan. The plan seeks to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

"Both parties will have to do their part if there is to be an orderly withdrawal," she said. "So the coordinating function is absolutely critical."

Rice's comments reflected concern within the Bush administration at the lack of cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis on the withdrawal, which has been delayed once and is scheduled to start in mid-August. Israel has occupied Gaza since the 1967 Middle East War.

She urged the two sides not to get distracted by problems linked to the final status of a future Palestinian state, but to concentrate solely on achieving an orderly transition of power in Gaza.

Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn is working with both sides on the economic development of a Palestinian-controlled Gaza. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Ward is assisting Palestinian efforts to build a more effective security force that could control armed militants. Progress has reportedly been slow on both fronts.

Standing next to Rice at yesterday's news conference, Abbas pledged "full coordination with the Israeli side" to ensure a complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

He said the Palestinian leadership remained intent on preventing militants' attacks on Israelis. The region has a seen a drop in violence since a February summit in Egypt, when Abbas and Sharon announced that each side would refrain from attacks on the other. A month later, Abbas persuaded the main Palestinian militant groups to agree to observe calm.

The Palestinian leader objected to what he called Israeli violations of the cease-fire, including fatal shootings by soldiers. Israel says the Palestinians have done too little to clamp down on fighters and that its forces have foiled numerous bombings since the calm was announced. Militants have fired rockets and mortars into Jewish communities in and around the Gaza Strip in response to what they call instances of Israeli aggression.

The Israeli army said yesterday that troops had killed a Palestinian man and wounded another who had opened fire on a military outpost in the Gaza Strip. An army spokeswoman said three men fired shots from outside a fence surrounding the Jewish settlement Kfar Darom. A third attacker escaped.

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