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Rice Extends Mideast Trip


U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is extending her trip to Israel, to broker a deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on opening Gaza's border with Egypt. Secretary Rice will return to Israel late Monday after a previously scheduled visit to Jordan.

Secretary Rice is extending her stay in Israel to try and get the Israelis and Palestinians to agree on how to open the Rafah border crossing. The crossing has been closed since just after Israel completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in September.

The Rafah crossing is considered vital for trade and movement by Palestinians, but Israel says before the crossing can be opened the Palestinian Authority must ensure that adequate security measures are in place to prevent the infiltration of terrorists and weapons into Gaza. U.S. envoy, James Wolfensohn has been holding discussions with the Israelis and Palestinians, but the former World Bank president has expressed frustration over both sides' inability to reach a deal, warning that "time is running out."

At a news conference on Monday following talks with Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Secretary Rice said the issue of Rafah must be resolved.

"It is very important for ordinary Palestinians in their daily lives," said Ms. Rice. "Whether it is the farmer or the university student or the restaurant owner that there be freedom of movement. I said to President Abbas that I believe very strongly that if the parties work very hard now on the Wolfensohn agenda there is agreement in sight, because with enough will and creativity, I believe these issues can be resolved and we talked about some of those aspects."

Israeli officials say a compromise package involves stationing security personnel from the European Union to "augment" Palestinian security forces, who will control the crossing. A key sticking point has been Israel's insistence on security cameras at the crossing, which so far Palestinians have rejected.

At his news conference with Secretary Rice, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he was optimistic about an agreement with Israel.

"Today we discussed issues related to the Gaza Strip and the need to not turn the Strip into a big prison and the need to reopen the Rafah crossing as soon as possible. We are about to reach an agreement on this issue," said Mr. Abbas. "We have also discussed the reopening of the airport and the port."

Mr. Abbas also said Palestinians would not agree to any Israeli personnel being stationed at the crossing.

The Palestinian Authority president also repeated his vow to disarm militant factions ahead of Palestinian elections scheduled for January 25th, something U.S. officials have repeatedly urged him to do.

Just hours before U.S. and Palestinian officials met, Israeli troops shot and killed a senior commander of the Islamic militant group Hamas in the West Bank city of Nablus. Israeli commanders say the militant was planning an attack against Israelis. In response, the military wing of Hamas vowed on Monday to avenge the killing.

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