Rice Urges Israel to Keep Gaza Open After Pullout

Times Staff Writer

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday urged Israel to refrain from sealing off the Gaza Strip, together with its 1.3 million Palestinian inhabitants, after withdrawing from the seaside territory later this summer.

The secretary's comments, delivered at a joint news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, were among her strongest yet in support of freedom of movement for Palestinians after the planned Israeli pullout.

Rice, who met the previous day with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, spent much of Saturday listening to Abbas and other senior Palestinian officials express fears that after the Israeli withdrawal, Gaza would become a "big prison," with highly restricted access to the outside world.

"When the Israelis withdraw from Gaza, it cannot be sealed or isolated ... with the Palestinians closed in," Rice said at the news conference at Abbas' headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, which was the late Yasser Arafat's compound.

"We are committed to connectivity between Gaza and the West Bank, and we are committed to openness and freedom of movement for the Palestinian people," she added, with Abbas looking on and nodding.

With the pullout set to start in 3 1/2 weeks, the Palestinian Authority is increasingly worried that it lacks an accord with Israel on providing passage between Gaza and the West Bank, which are separated by a 25-mile-wide swath of Israeli territory.

Palestinians fear that both Gaza inhabitants and goods produced there will become confined to the territory. After Israel relinquishes its 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and pulls back most of its forces, it is likely to continue to patrol Gaza's airspace, territorial waters and external borders.

Israel has expressed willingness in principle to allow Palestinians to build a seaport, but still undecided is the fate of Gaza's international airport, which Israel closed four years ago following the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising. The status of Gaza's border with Egypt, which now has a single Israeli-supervised entry and exit point at Rafah, is still under discussion. Israel also controls the main commercial crossing into Gaza, at Karni, and will almost certainly continue to do so.

Palestinians insist that Gaza, with its economy in ruins, cannot become viable unless Israel ensures some means of travel between the territory and the somewhat more financially robust West Bank. Various plans are being discussed, including a direct rail link and a guarded highway.

Israeli officials, responding to the secretary's remarks, restated concerns that Palestinian militant groups operating in Gaza would take advantage of freedom of movement to stage attacks inside Israel, as they have in the past.

"We want to ease restrictions, to look to the day after [withdrawal], and the perennial problem when we do that is that we get terror attacks," said Raanan Gissin, an official in Sharon's office. "It's not a one-sided thing -- it depends on one crucial aspect: security and fighting terrorism."

Sharon and other senior Israeli officials have leveled harsh criticism at Abbas, whom they accuse of failing to act decisively against militant groups such as Hamas. Sharon held to that stance during talks with Rice at his ranch in the Negev desert.

But after her discussions with the Palestinians, the secretary went out of her way to praise the efforts of Abbas, whose security forces have been engaging in sporadic street battles with Palestinian militants as they try to quell rocket fire -- mainly by Hamas, from inside Gaza -- against Israeli targets. The fighting has been some of the worst internal Palestinian violence in years.

With Abbas at her side, Rice said she wished to "commend" the Palestinian Authority for "ongoing efforts to enforce the rule of law in the West Bank and Gaza."

But she added, "There is much work to be done."

In addition to her talks with Abbas, Rice met separately with Prime Minister Ahmed Korei and Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, who is in charge of the Palestinian security forces. She also spoke with Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian official who is serving as the main contact with Israel on matters regarding the withdrawal.

Rice held more talks with Israeli officials before leaving late Saturday, and Dahlan said he hoped those discussions would yield concrete pledges from the Israeli side.

"We hope to get positive answers as soon as possible," Dahlan told reporters in Ramallah. "Time is running out."

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