Ramallah, West Bank Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, warning 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 in order 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 Palestinian president 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 convincing 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 tour of the Mideast and Europe.
U.S. officials say that a successful withdrawal from Gaza will bolster the standing of both Abbas and Sharon, who currently are both politically weak, and help reenergize the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the roadmap. By contrast, a troubled departure, especially one that allows militant groups to achieve control of Gaza, will 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 ceasefire has largely held for four months, Israeli troops shot dead Saturday a Palestinian who 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 a translator present. A Palestinian official with knowledge of the meeting said that Abbas raised four key issues, which all center on Palestinian fears that Gaza effectively will 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 will not be successful unless: Israel gives up control of the Philadelphi corridor along the border of Egypt; barriers are eased at crossing points in and out of Gaza; Israel drops a policy of requiring goods to be offloaded and reloaded at the border; and that Gaza's airport is reopened.
Israel has spent months negotiating with Egypt to monitor the border with Gaza, but the discussions have become mired in a dispute about whether Egyptian soldiers can be deployed all along the Israeli border. Israeli officials also are developing a series of high-tech terminals to speed the passage of goods, a project that recently received $50 million in funding from Congress.