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Rice Sets New Mideast Trip Amid Gaza Turmoil


U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits the Middle East again next week amid tensions over Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza and Israeli strikes against Gaza militants. Rice, on tour this week in Asia, is meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Thursday in Tokyo. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Mr. Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas committed, at the U.S.-organized Annapolis conference last November, to work for a settlement of the Mideast conflict by the end of this year.

But prospects for an agreement in 2008 have receded amid slow-moving talks between the sides, and chronic Gaza-related violence.

On Wednesday, Israeli air strikes in Gaza aimed at quelling rocket fire from the territory killed at least 10 Palestinians including several Hamas militants, while one of at least 20 rockets fired at the Israel town of Sderot from Gaza killed one person on a college campus.

State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey, who confirmed Rice's Middle East travel plans, condemned what he termed unprovoked attacks on innocent Israeli civilians but also counseled Israel to be measured in its response.

"Our long-standing view is that Israel has a right to defend itself," he said. "However, we always ask that, in doing so, they consider the consequences of those actions and the potential effect it might have. And we remain concerned about the civilian population in Gaza that continues to suffer as a result of Hamas's misrule and of Hamas's not only toleration but active support and promotion of these kinds of attacks on Israel."

Rice, now in Japan on the last stop of an Asian trip, will fly to the Middle East for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials in Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Ramallah next Tuesday and Wednesday.

By coincidence, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert is visiting Tokyo and is to confer with Rice there Thursday in preparation for the Secretary's Jerusalem visit, her second this year.

Mr. Olmert, whose government is under heavy domestic pressure for stronger action to stop the Gaza rocket fire, said in Tokyo the problem will not halt peace negotiations with Mr. Abbas.

The Israeli leader said he is not sure an agreement in 2008 is achievable but said the sides are determined to make what he termed a "giant step forward" to end the dispute once and for all.

After her Middle East talks, Rice goes on to Brussels for a NATO foreign ministers' meeting next Thursday expected to be dominated by discussion of Kosovo and Afghanistan.

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