Two senior U.S. envoys met Palestinian security officials in Gaza Tuesday to urge calm among Palestinians as the Israeli evacuation of Gaza settlements moves into high-gear. The Gaza mission was the first by a top State Department official in nearly two years.
The Bush administration is counting on a peaceful Gaza disengagement as a springboard to progress toward a broader Middle East peace.
It is mounting an intensive diplomatic effort with both sides to see that three-week withdrawal process goes smoothly.
Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch, who has been in the region practically full-time in recent weeks, went to Gaza Tuesday for talks with Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yussef and his security chiefs.
Mr. Welch was accompanied by U.S. Army Lieutenant-General William Ward, who has been working since February to coordinate security aspects of the Gaza pullout between Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. officials stressed the importance of maintaining order among Palestinians as the Gaza settlements are evacuated. "They took the opportunity to underline, at this important moment in the withdrawal process, the importance of Palestinian security officials insuring that the withdrawal take place in an atmosphere of calm and free from violence. So I think that they had a good meeting. This was, I think, the second time that General Ward has gone in (to Gaza). He went in several days ago as well to meet with security officials to review the preparations," he said.
Mr. Welch's visit to Gaza was the first by a senior U.S. civilian official since three American security guards, escorting U.S. diplomats, were killed by a bomb planted in a Gaza roadway in October 2003.
The State Department imposed a Gaza travel ban to press Palestinian authorities to find those responsible for the murders, which remain unresolved.
The ban was eased several weeks ago to facilitate visit by former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, who is seeking to boost economic aid to Gaza as an envoy for the international Middle East quartet, the United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations.
Mr. Wolfensohn, an Australian-born naturalized U.S. citizen, has in recent days lined up some $15 million in private donations, mainly from wealthy Americans, to compensate departing Israeli settlers in Gaza for greenhouses which will be handed over intact to Palestinians.
The greenhouses, around the main Gaza settlement of Gush Katif, produce vegetables, herbs and flowers for export and have employed hundreds of Palestinians who would lose their jobs if the facilities were torn down.
Spokesman McCormack urged Arab countries in the region to supplement U.S. and European efforts to financially support the disengagement process.
He said Monday the Bush administration will send assessment teams to Israel to determine whether new U.S. economic aid might be provided for development projects in Israel's Negev and Galilee regions, designed party to accommodate dispossessed settlers.
Israel is vacating all its 21 settlements in Gaza and four remote settlements in the West Bank under the disengagement plan, which will require the relocation of nearly 10,000 people.
Already the largest single recipient of U.S. aid, Israel is understood to be seeking about two billion dollars in new assistance spread out over several years to help cover disengagement expenses.
The Bush administration has made no commitment but says it will consider the Israeli request.