RAMALLAH, West Bank — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel yesterday not to keep the Gaza Strip sealed off from the outside world after its planned withdrawal, echoing a key Palestinian concern.
On a hastily arranged mission to preserve a truce shaken by violence and ensure militant attacks do not hamper Israel’s pullout next month, Miss Rice repeated praise for Palestinian efforts to improve security but said more needed to be done.
Her clearest statement yet supporting the Palestinian demand for freedom of movement from Gaza followed a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, the other occupied territory the Palestinians want for their state. Gaza is about an hour’s drive from East Jerusalem.
“When the Israelis withdraw from Gaza, it cannot be sealed or isolated … with the Palestinian people closed in after the withdrawal,” Miss Rice said during a press conference.
“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 said.
Israel has said it will keep control of Gaza’s air and sea space for security reasons, though troops are expected to leave the border with Egypt. There is no Israeli agreement yet on how the Gaza Strip and West Bank might be linked.
In shuttle diplomacy over three days, Miss Rice urged Israelis and Palestinians to hammer out agreements on how to manage Gaza during and after the pullout but achieved no breakthroughs.
She may return before the mid-August withdrawal to push for results. “She would be available,” a senior U.S. official said.
Washington sees Israel’s withdrawal from all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of the 120 settlements in the West Bank as a step towards reviving the peace talks.
Palestinians welcome the move, but fear Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will strengthen the Israeli hold on the West Bank under what he calls “disengagement” from conflict.
Palestinian officials told Miss Rice that Israel had not done enough to discuss key aspects of the plan. “Coordinating the Israeli withdrawal from the outset is extremely vital,” Mr. Abbas said.
As Miss Rice departed the region yesterday for her return to the U.S., Palestinian gunmen opened fire on an Israeli vehicle traveling on the main road connecting the Gaza Strip settlements to Israel, killing a husband and wife and wounding four other Israelis, rescue workers and the army said.
Three Palestinian groups jointly claimed responsibility for the attack that occurred early today, which they called a “martyrdom operation.”
Earlier, the army said it had captured a would-be suicide bomber armed with an 11-pound explosive belt, who had purportedly infiltrated Israel from the Gaza Strip and planned to attack Tel Aviv.