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Rice on Israel troop withdrawal: 'There is no more time'

Urges Israeli, Palestinians to resolve differences over Gaza


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Middle East

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to tackle key differences over Israel's planned withdrawal of troops and settlers from Gaza.

Speaking at the start of a weeklong trip through the Middle East and Europe, Rice said "there is no more time to simply put problems on the agenda."

Rice also called on the Palestinian government to do "much more" to combat Palestinian terrorism.

Her comments, at a news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, came the same day Palestinian militants launched two attacks against Israeli troops in Gaza.

During her trip Rice also plans to meet with top Israeli officials.

Rice expressed optimism for Israel's plan to withdraw from Gaza in August, calling it "our best chance to re-energize the road map."

"I really do think that the best task ahead of us, the best course ahead of us, is to make sure that the Gaza withdrawal is successful," she said.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders have expressed support for the "road map" for Middle East peace as put together by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

The plan calls for both sides to take numerous steps, including an end to Palestinian terrorism and unauthorized Israeli settlements.

Citing questions over "freedom of movement" through the territories, "disposition of assets" and security concerns, Rice said, "These are all issues that will need to be resolved before the disengagement begins."

She added, "One reason I'm here is to encourage the parties to actively, concretely solve these problems."

The United States strongly supports Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to disengage from Gaza, but Palestinian leaders have complained that it was a plan reached not through negotiations, but unilaterally. Sharon called it a necessary step that could advance peace efforts.

Israeli and Palestinian officials have met to discuss plans for the pullout from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. A chief concern is whether the Palestinian security apparatus is strong and well-organized enough to ensure security in the region once Israeli troops are gone.

Standing beside Abbas, Rice praised his efforts to combat corruption and crack down on militant groups that have carried out terrorist attacks, killing hundreds of Israelis and others.

But she also took the Palestinian leadership to task, saying, "Of course, much more needs to be done, particularly to use actively the security force to combat lawlessness and to combat terrorism."

Abbas has been reluctant to lift arms against militant groups.

Reporters grilled Rice about the U.S. response to the success of Hamas in regional elections. The United States and Israel consider the group a terrorist organization, noting Hamas has carried out more terrorist attacks than any other group in the region.

Rice said she believes people will vote for leaders who offer peace and hopeful visions of the future.

"I frankly don't think that it is the dream of mothers and fathers around the world that their children will be suicide bombers," she said. "I don't think it is the dream of people around the world that their children will have no future but one of violence."

Violence in Gaza

Earlier Saturday two Palestinian militants opened fire at Israeli troops guarding an Israeli settlement in Gaza, Israeli and Palestinian officials said. One militant was killed and another was wounded when the soldiers opened fire, Palestinian officials said.

Two Palestinian militant groups, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Islamic Jihad, claimed joint responsibility for the failed attack.

Shortly after Rice spoke, a blast was heard in Gaza. Palestinian militants said they had launched two rockets toward an Israeli settlement in southern Gaza.

Israeli military officials said two projectiles fell in an open area but caused no damage.

Abbas, at the news conference, said he and other Palestinian leaders discussed with Rice the importance of "maintaining calm" in the region and expressed their continued commitment to the official cease-fire.

He complained about "Israeli breaches" of agreements and called on the Israeli government to release prisoners and remove roadblocks.

The Palestinian Authority, he said, is committed to ensuring that there is only "one authority" with "one set of weapons." Pluralism, he said, should exist politically -- not through violence by disparate groups.

Abbas added that the democratic process is "guaranteed for everyone to participate."

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