JERUSALEM, June 19 (JTA) — Just as the cracks were showing in Israel’s attempt to coordinate its upcoming Gaza Strip withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority, in stepped the United States to cement a deal. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visiting the region ahead of a meeting this week of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, announced that the sides had agreed on a solution for a pressing issue in Gaza — the fate of some 1,200 Israeli homes to be evacuated in August. “Israel and the Palestinian Authority agree that the settler homes in Gaza should be removed,” Rice told reporters after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “Therefore the parties will work toward a plan for destruction and cleanup.” The deal has symbolic value, given the distrust that has dogged efforts to secure a smooth pullout, but it was quickly overshadowed by an eruption of violence in Gaza. Palestinian terrorists killed an Israeli soldier near Rafah, a flashpoint town on the Egyptian border, and wounded two others. Army return fire killed a gunman. Israel has made clear that a cessation of Palestinian violence is a precondition for its withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank and for any resumption of moves to implement the “road map” peace plan. Sharon, who is to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday, said he would press him on the point. “I intend to ask Abu Mazen how it can be possible to make progress toward the road map, what he intends to do on the various security issues and how he intends to act to dismantle the terrorist organizations,” Sharon told his Cabinet, referring to Abbas by his nom de guerre. Rice, who met Abbas in Ramallah on Saturday, echoed the call. But she also was quoted as saying that the Palestinian leader was “in a difficult internal struggle,” an allusion to resistance he faces from popular armed groups such as Hamas. Sharon himself noted that Sunday’s Rafah ambush was carried out by Islamic Jihad and a splinter group of Abbas’ own Fatah Party, suggesting recognition by Israel that a de facto truce Abbas brokered among major Palestinian terrorist groups is largely holding. In the end, Rice called on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to work together for a secure handover of Gaza. “Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority will take the necessary actions and will coordinate such actions where appropriate to ensure a peaceful disengagement and economic viability and hope for the Palestinian people,” she said, without giving details. Rice also reiterated the Bush administration’s dissatisfaction with Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, exhorting Israel not to place “facts on the ground” that could prejudge peace talks with the Palestinians.
Rice: Agreement on settler homes