US presses Abbas to stem violence

WASHINGTON (AFP) — US officials are stepping up pressure on the Palestinian leadership to crack down on violence that threatens a truce barely a month ahead of Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza.
Officials said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas heard a stern message Wednesday in a phone call from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a meeting with her top aide for the Middle East, David Welch.

Both urged Abbas to take concrete action after a suicide attack Tuesday in the coastal city of Netanya that left five Israelis dead and raised tensions as Israel sealed off the occupied territories.

Acting State Department Spokesman Tom Casey said Abbas was told “the Palestinian leadership needs to take immediate actions to find those who are responsible for the recent bombing in Israel and bring them to justice.”

Rice, who issued a tough statement on the attack on Tuesday, followed it up a day later with a phone call to Abbas from her plane as she flew back from a swing through Asia, Casey said.

He said Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, met with Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah and also discussed tasks ahead to ensure the success of the Gaza handover.

Among them, Casey said, was “the broader need for the Palestinian Authority to take action to end violence and terror.”

The double-barrelled approach to Abbas came with all sides working to finalise details of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank that is due to start in mid-August.

The parties faced a host of issues, including deployment of Palestinian security forces, border arrangements, freedom of movement, the distribution of assets and economic development of the impoverished area.

“Obviously, there’s still a lot to be done,” Casey said. “And we want to make sure the process proceeds as successfully as it can.”

With the administration of President George W. Bush billing the Gaza pullout as a milestone for the peace process, Rice warned last month that time was running out to resolve outstanding questions.

Several analysts have suggested that without proper coordination between Israelis and Palestinians, the handover could produce a dangerous vacuum that could backfire on all parties.

The Americans have dispatched Army Lieutenant General William Ward to help with security arrangements and former World Bank president James Wolfensohn to sort out the thorny economic issues.

A State Department official, who asked not to be named, said Ward and Wolfensohn would likely stay in the region “for the duration” before the Gaza operation and signalled a heightened US involvement.

“As you get closer and closer to show time, obviously the need for all the parties to be in touch with one another and be assured that everybody’s on the same page and properly coordinated becomes increasingly important,” he said.

Abbas, accused by Israel of failing to rein in the factions, travelled to Gaza on Thursday for crisis talks with armed Palestinian factions in hopes of keeping the violence from again spiralling out of control.

A Palestinian interior ministry spokesman said Palestinian police and security forces in the Gaza Strip were placed on a state of alert Thursday due to “tension on the ground.”

Word of the move came after the death of an Israeli woman Thursday who was killed when Palestinian fighters fired four makeshift rockets from the occupied Gaza Strip into southern Israel.

Casey said that “obviously, we condemn that attack and that violence” but sidestepped speculation on what it might mean for the scheduled Gaza withdrawal.

“Putting an end to these kinds of attacks and taking action on violence is a part of the message that was conveyed both by the secretary and by Assistant Secretary Welch directly to President Abbas yesterday,” he said.

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