In Israel, Rice clears Gaza hurdle

The secretary of State Sunday called on Israel and the Palestinians to cooperate on withdrawal.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Sunday cleared at least one crucial hurdle in the way of Israel's historic withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank.

Some of the 1,200 red-roofed settler homes in 21 Jewish settlements will be demolished to make way for high-rise apartments before the land is handed over to Palestinian control, Ms. Rice confirmed at a press conference.

But on the eve of a Tuesday summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, many more questions - from security issues to economic infrastructure - remain unresolved.

These uncertainties leave analysts wondering if disengagement, already delayed, will take place as scheduled on Aug. 15. But it's clear now that a timely and peaceful withdrawal requires a high level of cooperation between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas over what was once conceived of as a unilateral move by the Israelis.

Rice's visit is seen largely as a way to shepherd cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians on disengagement. If successful, this could create conditions for progress on a broader peace deal in the long term.

"Much more work will need to be done in the coming months for the disengagement to succeed," she said at a press conference Sunday at the end of the first leg of a tour through the Middle East. "This is a historic step that is being taken. It is not easy, and the next several months ahead of us are complicated and consequential for the future."

Less than two months before Israel ends its 37-year occupation of Gaza and evacuates Jewish settlements there, Rice's visit also highlighted uncertainties over whether withdrawal will spark momentum toward peace negotiations or give way to new fighting.

Rice also said one key to the disengagement will be cooperation between the Israeli army and Palestinian police forces to ensure militants don't scuttle the process. A reminder of how difficult that will be came just moments before her remarks Sunday, when one Israeli soldier was killed along the Egyptian border in an ambush by Islamic Jihad militants, one of whom was killed in the attack.

Israeli military chiefs have vowed they will not pull back under fire from Palestinian militants, raising the possibility of a violent evacuation. The two sides have reportedly agreed to set up a joint command for the withdrawal, but Israel is still unsure whether the Palestinian police will confront the gunmen. Palestinians, by contrast, don't know whether Israel would allow them to call in reinforcements from Gaza or the West Bank.

"The proof will be on the day of the disengagement," says Shmuel Bar, a Middle East expert at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Institute. "At the end of the day there will be tools for coordination. The problem is whether these communications are going to be able to deliver anything."

Palestinian observers say prolonged clashes with Israel or uncontrolled looting of the evacuated areas would weaken Abbas domestically and abroad.

The Israeli withdrawal was originally conceived by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a unilateral move. With the election of Abbas earlier this year, the pullback has been opened up to tentative coordination requiring a high level of cooperation now considered essential for the plan's success.

And even though US-appointed mediators Gen. William Ward and James Wolfensohn are trying to help the sides on security and economic issues, respectively, progress has been difficult.

"The two sides need each other at this stage to help to move forward for their own reasons," says Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a fellow at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center for North African and Middle Eastern Studies, "but they don't want to be seen by their publics as serving as subcontractors for the other side."

The fate of the infrastructure left behind by settlers figures as the second unknown hanging over the final weeks before the pullout. The settlements contain thousands of greenhouses that could contribute to Gaza's economy. But it's unclear what will become of them because of difficulties in crafting a transaction to transfer ownership to the Palestinians.

"When it comes to the issue of the assets, there is no clarity about which assets will be left intact and which assets will be destroyed," says Salah Haider Shafi, a Gaza-based economist. "If they don't utilize the time now, the transfer of living agriculture might fail."

Even if Israel and the Palestinians succeed in coordinating a peaceful handover, the long-term prosperity of Gaza depends on whether the Palestinians will have access to the outside world, Israel, and the West Bank, observers note.

Rice said in Jerusalem that Israelis and Palestinians agree on the principle of freedom of movement. Implementation, however, will test Israel's tolerance for security risks. If goods and people are delayed for hours at Gaza's border crossings because of Israeli security checks, it will make economic prosperity nearly impossible, analysts and officials say.

Furthermore, a transportation link with the West Bank is considered essential for keeping Palestinians unified economically and politically, but the sides are only starting to discuss the issue.

Palestinians also want to build a seaport and reopen a Gaza airstrip destroyed by Israel after the start of the fighting. But Israel is wary of giving such concessions at this stage.

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