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Israeli Withdrawal from Gaza Could Set Stage for Cease-Fire, says Palestinian Official - 2004-04-08

The Palestinian foreign minister says an Israeli pullout from Gaza could set the stage for a cease-fire involving all Palestinian factions, including Hamas. The minister, Nabil Shaath, also says the international community would need to provide massive economic support for the rebuilding of Gaza, following an Israeli withdrawal.

Mr. Shaath defended Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's decision to hold talks on bringing the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the Palestinian Authority.

Both groups have carried out frequent suicide bombings and other terror attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis.

The U.S. government has labeled Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist groups, and has warned against bringing them into the Palestinian Authority. But Mr. Shaath says the inclusion of those groups in the Palestinian Authority could help bring about a truce.

"Joining the Palestinian government [by Hamas and Islamic Jihad] is a matter that is being discussed today, and it obviously has to be conditioned upon a commitment to the Palestinian Authority and to the peace process," he said. "I mean, the idea that they suggested of coming into the government, which was initially accepted by President Arafat, was the idea of the [Israeli] withdrawal from Gaza, and, therefore, to the cease-fire."

Mr. Shaath's comments come as the Palestinian Authority prepares to hold another round of talks with the armed groups this Saturday in Gaza.

The Palestinian foreign minister also says an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza must be followed by a firm international economic plan to develop the poverty-stricken territory.

"And once it happens, that the Americans would be ready with the World Bank and other donors to make massive economic support for the Palestinian Authority, in terms of relief, reconstruction, economic activities, labor, job creation and others," said Mr. Shaath.

Mr. Shaath was responding to recent statements by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who says that, in the absence of peace talks with the Palestinians, he sees no alternative to a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

But Mr. Shaath warned that, even if Israel leaves Gaza, the Palestinians will not give up their long-standing demand for statehood, and their desire to implement the international road map peace plan.

"Nothing that will pre-empt permanent settlement [of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict], neither on borders, nor refugees nor anything - this will not be accepted, unless it is part of the [international] road map [peace plan], and it should be coordinated with the Palestinians," said the Palestinian foreign minister.

Mr. Shaath is expected to visit Washington in a few weeks to discuss Israel's Gaza withdrawal plan with senior U.S. officials.