JERUSALEM – Palestinian militants ambushed Israeli soldiers near the Gaza-Egypt border Sunday as the soldiers worked to reinforce a wall meant to stop smuggling, the army said. One soldier and one attacker were killed in the latest violation of a shaky 4-month-old cease-fire.
Despite the violence, the two sides pushed forward with coordination of Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in mid-August. They were prodded by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search), who wrapped up a two-day visit to the region Sunday by saying she was reassured Israel and the Palestinians are committed to a peaceful pullout.
"Israel and the Palestinian Authority share a commitment to ensure that disengagement happens smoothly, without violence," Rice said at a news conference in Jerusalem (search).
She said the two sides had agreed to coordinate the removal of settler homes in Gaza, which would allow construction of larger apartment buildings for Palestinians in the densely populated area.
Rice's visit, ahead of an Israeli-Palestinian summit Tuesday, appeared to give new momentum to cooperation on the Israeli withdrawal.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) said he is committed to preserving the calm during the pullout. "We will do all that we can to ensure that the disengagement is carried out quietly," he told Israel TV.
He said the Palestinians already have thwarted "dozens" of attacks with Israeli cooperation. But he said his forces "can't control everything" because of limited resources.
Later Sunday, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, now an international envoy involved in preparations for the Gaza pullout, met with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials to discuss such issues as the demolitions of settler homes and movement of Palestinians in and out of Gaza. Israeli and Palestinian officials said the meeting was productive, but no agreements were reached.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed the Gaza pullout early last year as a unilateral act meant to improve security. About 8,500 settlers live in Gaza, surrounded by about 1.3 million Palestinians.
Sharon said Sunday he hopes the pullout, accompanied by a withdrawal from part of the West Bank, will lead to a resumption of peace talks. But he said future progress would depend on the Palestinians' ability to crack down on militants.
Israeli-Palestinian violence has dropped sharply since Sharon and Abbas declared a cease-fire in February, but sporadic fighting has continued. Israel fears militants, wanting to claim victory, will step up attacks during the withdrawal.
Sunday's attack along the Egyptian border with Gaza was the second major assault on Israeli targets in Gaza in recent days. The attacks were in a volatile area near the Rafah refugee camp where a number of tunnels used for weapons smuggling have been uncovered.
The militant group Islamic Jihad said it carried out the attack in a joint operation with a small violent group loosely affiliated with Abbas' Fatah movement. The groups also claimed responsibility for a Saturday attack in which Palestinian militants opened fire at an army post.
Islamic Jihad said it was still committed to the cease-fire but was retaliating for Israel's killing two of its militants on June 7.
Also Sunday, Abbas told Israel TV that he believes the militant group Hamas, which agreed in March to honor the cease-fire, is becoming more moderate and suggested the group will recognize Israel's existence.
In an interview with Channel One TV, Abbas cited the drop in violence and Hamas' participation in upcoming Palestinian elections as signs of political reform. When asked if Hamas will recognize the Israeli state, Abbas said: "I think that Hamas is on a track of political moderation and they will do whatever is necessary to progress on this track."
When asked about Abbas' statement, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said it was Abbas' "own opinion so there is no need to comment."