The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) says it got no answers about Israel’s intentions from the American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during Rice’s latest visit to the Middle East.
The PNA said Rice only gave ‘verbal assurances’, while Israeli leaders were declaring that large areas of the occupied West Bank will remain ‘an integral part of Israel’ – in defiance of UN resolutions – following Israel’s scheduled withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in mid-August.
Rice, the United States’ top diplomat, arrived in Israel late last Friday and met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, before she met the Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas on Saturday.
Israel plans to ‘disengage’ from Gaza and a tiny part of the northern West Bank, whilst expanding and making other illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank permanent.
It also plans to extend the Apartheid Separation Wall through East Jerusalem, stealing more Palestinian land, whilst turning the Gaza Strip into a massive prison camp by surrounding all its borders and ports.
On the eve of Rice’s visit, Sharon, his deputy Peres and his finance minister, Netanyahu, said that in the future an expanded Ariel colony, Gush Etzion settlement bloc, and the Jordan Valley colonies would be an integral part of Israel.
The Gush Etzion settlement bloc would not be returned to the Palestinians under any future agreement, ‘Ha’aretz’ quoted Deputy-Prime Minister Peres as saying on Sunday.
On a visit to the Ariel settlement last Friday, Sharon said: ‘Today I have come in order to make every effort to check how it is possible to expand the city and strengthen this bloc, as I am doing with other blocs.
‘I reiterate and clarify that this bloc is one of the most important.
‘It will forever be part of the State of Israel.
‘There is no other thought and no other direction of thinking.’
Netanyahu said Israel considered the Jordan Valley ‘Israel’s eastern defence wall’.
‘The Jordan Valley will be under Israeli control . . . for ever,’ he added.
Meanwhile, Rice was saying that the US government was working on the basis of three principles – freedom of movement within Gaza, freedom within the West Bank and keeping open a link between the two.
‘Operating from those three principles, I think we can come to good solutions on many of these issues,” Rice said during a joint press conference with Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Saturday.
But she did not say how Palestinians would be able to move out of Gaza and who would control the link with the West Bank and how the permanent Israeli settlements in the West Bank would affect the situation.
Israel’s Apartheid Wall has already turned the Palestinian territory in the West Bank into a series of bantustans, from which Palestinians cannot move without Israel’s permission, whilst annexing large parts of the West Bank to Israel.
Rice said the Wall was a ‘concern’, especially regarding its route ‘around’ Jerusalem, the capital of the Palestinian state, which Israel also claims for itself.
But Rice clearly defended the right of Israel to build the Wall when she called it Israel’s ‘security barrier’.
Rice admitted that if Israel fulfils Palestinian fears that it will turn the Gaza Strip into a giant prison, then that would stymie desperately needed economic recovery.
‘When the Israelis withdraw from Gaza, it cannot be sealed off or isolated, with the Palestinian people closed in after the withdrawal,’ Rice said.
She said Israel shouldn’t do ‘anything that will prejudge a final status outcome’, in a reference to the Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace process’.
But she gave no pledges that the United States government would intervene with Israel to stop this happening.
‘I think everyone wants to clarify certain questions,” and I will work to help them,’ was all Rice would say.
‘The Palestinians need answers from the Israelis and the Israelis need answers from the Palestinians.’
But the PNA said barely three weeks until the Gaza plan is due to be put into operation, the Palestinians have still had no answers on basic issues such as border controls and freedom of movement.
The Palestinians’ primary concern is that Israel has not in fact given them any assurance of freedom of movement in and out of Gaza, either east and north into Israel or south into Egypt.
Abbas said ahead of his meeting with Rice: ‘We need information on how the disengagement will take place, when, where will it begin, what is the fate of the border crossings, what is the fate of the Palestinian airport? We’re not getting any answers.’
‘Coordinating the Israeli withdrawal from the outset is extremely vital so that we can undertake this step smoothly and without surprises,’ Abbas said at his press conference with Rice.
‘It makes no sense to talk of an independent Palestinian state at the same time as Israel is seizing the lands of this state, especially in Jerusalem, the future capital of our democratic Palestinian state,’ Palestinian news agency WAFA quoted Abbas as saying.
Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Sha’th said that Rice’s assurances to the PNA over Gaza and freedom of movement in the West Bank were ‘verbal’ and ‘not new’.
The same verbal assurances had been repeatedly pledged by US President George W Bush, he said.
‘We do believe these verbal assurances to be serious,’ he added.
Rice reportedly met with Abbas and Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei for 30 minutes and with Palestinian Interior Minister Nassr Yousef for more than an hour.
Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Mohammad Dahlan said: ‘The Israelis have no questions to ask us. It is only us who are awaiting answers.
‘They have only asked for a guarantee that the withdrawal will be peaceful and quiet and we have given them that assurance.
‘If we are not to receive answers, the withdrawal will be impractical and Gaza will be transformed into a jail.
‘Time is passing and the Israeli and American sides should bear their responsibilities.’
PNA spokeswoman Diana Bhutto warned that time was running out to avoid a ‘disastrous situation’.
‘We’re now at the wire, we’re at the 11th hour and we still don’t have any information,’ said Bhutto.
‘We’ve yet to receive one answer, not even one, on any of the issues that are now remaining.’
Despite the ‘concern’ expressed by Rice, the United States was joined by France, Russia and the British government in rejecting an Arab request and a proposal by Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa, to hold an emergency UN Security Council session to debate the Apartheid Wall.
The four governments said Sharon’s Gaza ‘disengagement plan’ trumped all other issues in the region at the moment.
Al-Kidwa, the Palestinians’ UN representative, requested the debate to mark one year of the decision by the International Criminal Court at The Hague declaring the Wall ‘illegal’.
The ICC’s advisory opinion was also adopted by the UN General Assembly.
In contrast to her ‘verbal assurances’ to the PNA, Rice said during her four-day visit to the Middle East that she would reward Israel with ‘accelerated contacts’ with Arab countries.
She told Israeli media that the US government hoped to convene an international conference after Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip, to promote ties between Israel and the ‘North African and Gulf countries’.
The radio said the aim would be ‘to promote the resumption of relations between Israel and the North African and Persian Gulf countries.’