RAMALLAH, West Bank – Visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) praised Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday for steps he has taken to clamp down on militant groups, but cautioned that more Palestinian efforts are needed.
"I want to take this opportunity to commend President Abbas and his leadership as well as that of his government for their ongoing efforts to enforce the rule of law in the West Bank and in Gaza," Rice said, speaking at a news conference after her meeting with Abbas.
Israel and the United States have repeatedly pressured Abbas to disarm violent groups like Hamas (search) and Islamic Jihad. But until recently, Abbas has instead mostly worked to pressure the militants to end violence.
However, Palestinian security forces and gunmen loosely affiliated with Abbas' ruling Fatah Party (search) clashed twice in recent days with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. The clashes came as Israel massed thousands of troops on the Gaza border, threatening to invade unless the Palestinians stopped militants from firing rockets and mortars at Jewish settlements and nearby Israeli towns.
"These efforts demonstrate the Palestinian leadership's commitment to ensuring security and tracking down those that perpetrate violent attacks," Rice said, calling on Abbas to continue these efforts.
"There is much work to be done," she said.
Rice was in the region in a hastily arranged trip to try and rescue a shaky Mideast truce amid an escalation of violence, determined that Israel's mid-August withdrawal from the Gaza Strip go ahead as planned.
Rice met with Abbas, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef — who is responsible for the Palestinian security forces.
"Rice demanded more Palestinian efforts to consolidate the truce," said Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan Khatib, who attended one of the meetings. Israel and the Palestinians declared an end to more than four years of violence at a February summit in Egypt.
But Rice also had strong words for the Israelis.
The Palestinians want Israel to relinquish control over the border crossings into the coastal strip and allow the Gaza port and airport reopened. Israel is reluctant to relinquish that control, fearing that without Israeli supervision militants would smuggle arms into Gaza.
Rice said free movement for the Palestinians was vital.
"That means when the Israelis withdraw from Gaza, they cannot be sealed or isolated as an area, with the Palestinian people closed in after that withdrawal," Rice said.
Abbas said the Gaza withdrawal must be the first step toward progressing with the "road map" peace plan, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"Israel should be aware that the withdrawal from Gaza must be a step in the road map and must be followed immediately with the resumption of the political process," Abbas said.
Abbas also called on Israel to stop expanding West Bank settlements.
On Friday, Rice met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his ranch in the Negev desert. Government spokesman Raanan Gissin said the meeting was "very friendly and frank," and focused on the upcoming withdrawal.
Although Rice repeatedly has said the United States would take a back seat as the Israelis and Palestinians work out differences, her trip seemed a sign that she planned to keep up the pressure for progress.