- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

JERUSALEM — Egypt will host talks among Yasser Arafat’s government, Islamic militant groups and other Palestinian factions on how to control the Gaza Strip after a proposed Israeli withdrawal, an aide to the Palestinian leader said yesterday.

A trio of top U.S. envoys, meanwhile, held another round of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials to learn more about Israel’s proposal to pull soldiers and Jewish settlers out of Gaza and perhaps also parts of the West Bank.

Israel has hinted to the Palestinians that if there is calm in Gaza, it might be willing to discuss the fate of the West Bank with the Palestinian Authority, said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a top Arafat aide.

He said Egyptian-sponsored talks between the Palestinian factions and the Palestinian Authority will be held in Cairo and the Palestinian territories in the coming weeks, though he didn’t give a date.

“The dialogue will focus on the aftermath of an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, how the Palestinians should run Gaza,” Mr. Abu Rdeneh said.

Although presented as a unilateral withdrawal, Israel is seeking solid backing from the United States and coordination with Egypt — and to a lesser extent with the Palestinians — to make sure “chaos and anarchy” do not prevail in Gaza, a senior Israeli official said.

Israel may even formalize a written agreement with the United States that would include details on the withdrawal and U.S. guarantees, the official said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qureia, will also discuss the plan, the official said. A long-delayed first summit between the two leaders is tentatively set for Tuesday.

The three visiting U.S. envoys — Undersecretary of State William Burns, Deputy Director of the National Security Council Stephen Hadley, and the council’s Mideast specialist, Elliot Abrams — met Palestinian and Israeli officials yesterday before leaving the region.

Israeli media reported that, besides Gaza, the United States is seeking a broad withdrawal from the West Bank. A draft of the Israeli plan outlines such a scenario, but says that the United States would have to recognize the redeployment as Israel’s final borders.

Palestinians worry that Mr. Sharon will pull forces out of Gaza, while further entrenching Israel in large parts of the West Bank, making it impossible to create a viable independent state there.

David Satterfield, a senior State Department official, said Thursday that Mr. Sharon’s steps must be in line with the U.S.-backed “road map.”

The road map envisions a Palestinian state by next year, but implementation has stalled since its launch last June.

In another development, Palestinians living in four West Bank villages close to Israel say they have received military orders expropriating more than 8,000 acres of land — most of it olive groves and agricultural fields.

The land is to be used for construction of a new three-mile section of the security barrier Israel is building to seal off the West Bank. The path of the new segment suggests Israel has decided not to push the barrier 10 miles deep into the West Bank to wrap around the Jewish settlement of Ariel.

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