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Mideast Peace Efforts Get Boost, But Violence Continues

Middle East peace efforts are getting a boost with a visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Tuesday's planned meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But, at the same time violence continues.

Peace efforts have moved forward sporadically since Mr. Abbas and Mr. Sharon agreed to a truce during their summit in Egypt four months ago. But, at times violence has threatened to derail any progress made.

Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
Secretary Rice's visit to the area was meant to inject new life into the sputtering process and to ensure that Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza and small portions of the West Bank moves ahead as scheduled in August. "A lot is at stake for the state of Israel, a lot is at stake for the Palestinians and a lot is at stake for the international community. I saw committed parties on both sides that are doing the necessary planning. The people who are engaged in this planning are working harder than you could possibly imagine to try and make it work. That's all human beings can do," she said.

Prime Minister Sharon insists the pullout will go ahead despite the vehement opposition of a vocal hard-line Israeli minority. President Abbas says he is committed to ensuring calm during the withdrawal, but he is also feeling the pressure from militant groups who want to claim they forced Israel to withdraw.

Even though the disengagement began as a unilateral Israeli move, both sides now say they will coordinate the action and that coordination is expected to top the agenda during the Sharon-Abbas meeting on Tuesday.

The two sides have agreed on demolishing the single-family settler homes to be replaced by apartment blocks more suited to easing the housing shortage for the over one million Palestinians in Gaza.

Israeli Finance Minister and Sharon rival, Benyamin Netanyahu, says during their meeting Tuesday the prime minister should put pressure on Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Netanyahu told Israel Radio President Abbas must be pushed in every possible way to fight terror - not just with words, but with deeds.

He said if the Palestinian leader does not move more aggressively against extremist groups such as Hamas, it will lead to his own downfall. "It will make us all fall," he added.

President Abbas told Israeli television Sunday evening that Palestinian security forces, with Israeli cooperation, have thwarted dozens of militant attacks. But, he added they cannot control them all due to limited resources.

Violence has increased again in the past several days. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for killing an Israeli man and wounding another in the northern West Bank early Monday. A day earlier, a group of militants attacked Israeli soldiers along the Gaza border with Egypt, killing one soldier. A Palestinian gunman was also killed in the clash.