Hopes Rise for Accord On Gaza Strip Security
By Glenn Kessler and Molly Moore
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 21, 2003; Page A18
JERUSALEM, June 20 -- Palestinian and Israeli officials today reported progress on an agreement that would give Palestinians responsibility for security in the entire Gaza Strip and lead to a cease-fire by Palestinian militant groups.
Predictions of an agreement, which came after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell flew here to press Israelis and Palestinians to demonstrate real progress in a U.S.-backed peace plan by reaching such a deal, could easily be thwarted by a variety of difficult issues, particularly Israel's desire to protect 8,000 Israeli settlers living in Gaza. Past hopes repeatedly have been dashed, and both sides are under pressure from the United States to demonstrate progress on the plan, known as the "road map."
Violence, meanwhile, erupted again today in the occupied territories, when a suspected Palestinian gunman fired on a carload of Americans driving from a settlement in the West Bank, killing a U.S. citizen who lives in a settlement and injuring his parents and wife.
Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister, spoke optimistically tonight, saying that in one week discussions with the Israelis had moved from limited Palestinian control of northeast Gaza to regaining control over the entire Gaza Strip, with its 1.3 million Palestinians, as well as Bethlehem. "It's no sham, no scam," Shaath said in an interview. "It's real."
Powell said an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza "would be a very, very powerful and important first step if we can do that." After that, "the people of Gaza can see life return to the strip and their own authority in charge," which, he said, "would give them confidence that organizations such as Hamas and other terrorist organizations perhaps do not have the right answer."
Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian cabinet member who is negotiating the cease-fire, said Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, is making "positive signs that they would accept a truce," ending attacks on Israeli citizens. But he said it would require a comprehensive package, including a true withdrawal from all of Gaza, significant release of Palestinian prisoners and a halt to the Israeli policy of assassinations.
"If the Israelis are serious, then they would give the Palestinians a chance to prove themselves," he said.
Shaath said an agreement with Israel on assassinations appeared possible. Under the plan, Israel would inform Palestinian security about possible suicide attackers, and Palestinian officials would be expected to arrest the suspects. Shaath said Palestinians had requested that U.S. officials act as a third party to ensure the information is properly delivered and acted upon.
There was no immediate comment from Hamas tonight about whether progress had been made toward a truce. Powell was highly critical of Hamas today, saying it "has not demonstrated it is a partner for peace."
Israeli officials confirmed they have offered to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. But they have insisted on maintaining control over two checkpoints on the main road to provide security for settlers. Palestinians said that if Israel reimposed roadblocks in response to a security problem, it would quickly divide Gaza into three parts, cutting off the flow of Palestinian goods and commerce necessary to restore economic life in Gaza.
Shaath said the Israeli government has proposed a bypass, which would destroy Palestinian homes, as one solution. Palestinians have countered by offering joint patrols, joint inspections, security coordination and camera surveillance. "If this glitch is solved, we are in business," Shaath said.
Israeli officials are deeply skeptical of a cease-fire, and have insisted it be followed almost immediately by a dismantling of militant groups. The Israeli government also has publicly refused to renounce assassinations -- a condition that militant groups have set for agreeing to a cease-fire.
With Powell at his side, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom declared that a "cease-fire is a ticking bomb." Israeli sources said that in his meeting with Powell, Shalom pulled out a copy of the road map and read aloud the portions devoted to Palestinian requirements to disarm terror groups.
Israeli officials also have made clear that the Palestinian Authority would have only limited time to prove it could handle security concerns. One Israeli official said the Palestinians must rapidly take on Hamas, and not hide behind the notion of a cease-fire. "If it's just temporary tricks to get us out of there, we will be back in after two or three weeks," he said.
"So long as there is terror, there will be no political process," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told reporters, pounding his fist on the lectern for emphasis. "Political process cannot coincide with terror. That is why we expect the Palestinian Authority to wage a true, genuine struggle against terrorism -- a true, genuine one."
Before taking a Jordanian helicopter into Jerusalem from the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, Powell had played down expectations for his seven-hour visit to Israel and the West Bank. But Palestinian officials said U.S. officials had pressed them in the days leading up to the visit to reach a deal that could be announced by Powell.
U.S. officials said the meetings were productive, giving both sides renewed focus and movement. In a meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and a session with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Powell scrutinized maps of Gaza to better understand the divisions between the two sides, according to a senior State Department official traveling with Powell.
It was Powell's fourth trip to the Middle East in six weeks, after a hiatus of more than a year.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice will travel to the region next week to push the White House initiative. Rice, named by President Bush as his special envoy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will also give a speech on Thursday to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
The killing of Zvi Goldstein, 47, a U.S. citizen and resident of the Jewish settlement of Eli, took place about three miles northeast of the city of Ramallah. His parents, Gene and Lorraine Goldstein, both 73, who were visiting from Plainview, N.Y., were injured along with his wife, Michal, according to Israeli officials. The elder Goldsteins had come to Israel for the wedding last Thursday of their grandson, Zvi Goldstein's son.
Earlier this week a 7-year-old girl was killed when Palestinian gunmen fired on her family's car on a major Israeli highway near the West Bank border.
At news conferences today, Israeli officials invoked the memory of 29 Israelis who have been killed since peace summits two weeks ago. But Powell, in both Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Jericho, took care to refer to the innocent Palestinian victims of Israeli military operations.
"I mourn for all who have lost their lives during this terrible period," Powell said. "I am as concerned about the mourning family of a Palestinian as the mourning family of an Israeli. They're all human beings, all God's children."
Correspondent John Ward Anderson contributed to this report.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company