Rice urges Israel not to seal off Gaza Strip after withdrawal

Palestinians fear people, goods will be isolated within territory

July 24, 2005|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RAMALLAH, West Bank - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel yesterday to refrain from sealing off the Gaza Strip, together with its 1.3 million Palestinian inhabitants, after withdrawing from the seaside territory this summer.

The secretary's comments, delivered at a joint news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, were among her strongest yet in support of freedom of movement for Palestinians after the Israeli pullout.

Rice, who met a day earlier with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, spent much of yesterday listening to Abbas and other senior Palestinian officials express fears that Gaza would become a "big prison" after the Israelis leave, with highly restricted access to the outside world.

"When the Israelis withdraw from Gaza, it cannot be sealed or isolated ... with the Palestinians closed in," Rice said at the news conference at Abbas' headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, formerly the late Yasser Arafat's compound.

"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 added, with Abbas looking on and nodding slightly.

With the pullout set to start in 3 1/2 weeks, the Palestinian Authority is increasingly worried that there is no accord with Israel on providing passage between Gaza and the West Bank, which are separated by a 25-mile-wide swath of Israeli territory.

Palestinians fear that people and goods produced in Gaza will be bottled up in the territory. After relinquishing the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and pulling back most of its forces, Israel probably will continue to patrol the strip's airspace, territorial waters and external borders.

Israeli officials, responding to Rice's remarks, restated concerns that Palestinian militant groups operating in Gaza would take advantage of freedom of movement to stage attacks inside Israel, as they have in the past.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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