- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 16, 2004

AMMAN, Jordan — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, meeting for the first time with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, urged Palestinians yesterday to seize the chance created by an Israeli plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip.

After talks with Mr. Qureia in the Jordanian capital, Amman, Mr. Powell said President Bush was still committed to establishing a Palestinian state. Mr. Powell also said he thinks the Palestinians will take the opportunity.

It was Mr. Qureia’s highest-level meeting with U.S. officials since he took office in November and took place at a time of Palestinian fury at Washington for giving unprecedented assurances to Israel in support of the Gaza pullout plan.

“We think that in recent weeks, with the announcement by the Israelis that they intend to leave Gaza and certain … settlements in the West Bank, we have been given a new opportunity and we hope to seize that opportunity,” Mr. Powell told reporters.

“I think that the Palestinians want to seize the opportunity,” he said.

But he added that Palestinians wanted to know more about the proposal and see what restrictions it contained that would be to their disadvantage.

“Frankly, we have to wait and see what the proposal actually is,” Mr. Powell said.

Mr. Powell, who is in Jordan to address the World Economic Forum at a Dead Sea resort, also met with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.

King Abdullah appeared to want the United States to play a more active role in pursuing Arab-Israeli peace, saying: “Let the world’s leaders demonstrate, once and for all, that they are serious about Palestinian freedom.”

Many Palestinians were furious at Mr. Bush’s assurances in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last month that Israel could not be expected to give up all its West Bank settlements or to accept the return of Palestinian refugees.

Palestinians saw his stance as making concessions affecting their vital interests without consulting them.

Mr. Powell noted that Mr. Sharon’s pullout plan still faced review after being rejected by his right-wing Likud Party in a May 2 referendum.

Mr. Qureia, who described the talks as “very, very constructive,” said there was still a good chance that a Palestinian state could be created in 2005 — a target date set by Mr. Bush in 2002 in a “road map” for peace now stymied by violence.

Mr. Powell was less optimistic: “I don’t think anybody can predict right now whether we will be able to achieve 2005 or not. But right now, it’s more important to get started.”

He said it remained Washington’s aim and desire to have a Palestinian state next year.

Meanwhile, more than 100,000 Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv yesterday in support of a Gaza pullout after Palestinian militants dealt the Israeli army its deadliest blow since 2002.

The killing of 13 soldiers by militants in the Gaza Strip last week has deepened already-strong support in Israel for Mr. Sharon’s pullout plan.

In response to the killings, Israel raided a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza near the Egyptian border, killing 29 Palestinians, including militants and bystanders.

U.N. relief officials estimated that Israeli armored bulldozers had razed more than 80 buildings, leaving about 1,100 Palestinians homeless in the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza. The army said it demolished gun nests. Dozens of homes were also demolished to widen a patrol corridor Israel controls on the border.

Yesterday, Israel’s Supreme Court imposed a temporary ban on the demolition of homes after a petition by a Palestinian rights group.

The Tel Aviv rally began hours after Israeli helicopters hit Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza in apparent retaliation for the soldiers’ deaths.

The militant group, one of the main factions behind a campaign of suicide bombings against Israelis, said missiles destroyed its leader Mohammed al-Hindi’s office in Gaza City, but that he was safely in hiding.

Three more Israeli missiles struck Gaza City early today, knocking out electricity and wounding four Palestinians, the Associated Press reported.

The attacks occurred minutes apart, just after midnight in two residential areas of the city.

The first strike targeted a building housing a branch office of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. The attack lightly wounded three boys, ages 3, 14 and 15, medical workers said.

The second strike hit a multistory building housing the offices of Al Resala, a newspaper affiliated with the militant Hamas group.

The Israeli army described the targets as “focal points of terrorist activity.” It said the Fatah building was used by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant group loosely affiliated with Fatah, and said the Hamas newspaper was used for incitement and to pass messages among the militant group’s leaders.

Palestinians said a third attack struck an electric transformer, knocking out power in the northern third of Gaza City, home to 40,000 people. The army had no information on the strike.

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