Wed, Aug 31, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Egypt's intel chief sees Palestinians

BALANCED In an effort to smooth the way for Israel's pullout from the Gaza strip, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman held talks with Palestine factions yesterday


Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was meeting separately with Palestinian factions yesterday, trying to smooth out the final glitches before Israel completes its pullout from the Gaza Strip and ends nearly four decades of occupation.

With both Israel and the Palestinians caught in pre-election fever, it appeared unlikely Israel's withdrawal will be followed immediately by significant steps toward reviving a Mideast peace plan, known as the "road map."

Suleiman was holding individual sessions with leaders of Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Then he was to deliver a speech on behalf of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to the Palestinian parliament.

He travels to Jerusalem today to meet Israeli leaders, focusing on arrangements for supervising the crossing of people and goods at the Gaza-Egypt border -- a responsibility the Palestinians insist Israel relinquish when it hands over control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority in the coming days.

"The Egyptian role is important and essential in order to create balance in the Palestinian arena so the withdrawal from Gaza is only the first step," said Abdullah Franji, the top Fatah leader in Gaza after his meeting with Suleiman.

Israel wants assurances that Gaza militants won't smuggle in weapons for future attacks and has proposed moving the crossing to a point where the Gaza, Egyptian and Israeli borders meet so it can continue to oversee it. Also on the table is a proposal for international observers to monitor traffic at the border crossing near the town of Rafah.

Suleiman's immediate task was to bolster a ceasefire declared in February that drastically reduced violence after more than four years of bloodshed.

"We want the truce from our side," Franji said. "It is in the interest of the Palestinian people to continue with the truce."

But Franji charged that Israel was undermining the ceasefire by expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and constructing a separation barrier on Palestinian land.

Despite the optimism generated by the evacuation of all 8,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza completed a week ago, Mideast diplomacy returned quickly to a familiar ground.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, under attack from his right-wing power base for abandoning Gaza, ruled out further pullbacks in the West Bank before a final peace agreement, although he said not all settlements will remain in place in a final peace accord.

"This was a one-time action," Sharon said. "There is not another stage. There are no more stages of disengagement." The large settlement blocs must remain as part of a peace agreement, he said.

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