Rice Praises Sharon on Gaza Pullout

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continues a brief visit to the Middle East, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Rice praised Sharon's decision to remove 1,600 Israeli settlers from Gaza and withdraw from the northern West Bank.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

In Jerusalem today, following a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she's confident that Israelis and Palestinians want to see Israel's withdrawal from Gaza go smoothly this summer. Rice said there is also agreement that the homes of Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip will need to be destroyed after Israel withdraws. NPR's Linda Gradstein has the story.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Rice sounded upbeat and optimistic after her meeting with Sharon. She said Israel and the Palestinian Authority are committed to an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank that proceeds smoothly and without violence. She also said there was agreement on what to do with the 1,600 homes of the Jewish settlers in Gaza.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Department of State): Israel and the Palestinian Authority agree that the settler homes in Gaza should be removed. Therefore, the parties will work toward a plan for destruction and cleanup.

GRADSTEIN: She said the Palestinian Authority is putting together a master plan on how best to use the land and assets that will be left in Gaza once the Israelis leave. The Ha'Aretz newspaper today reported Israel will offer to pay the Palestinian Authority to demolish and remove the settlers' homes. According to Ha'Aretz, this would provide jobs for unemployed Palestinians and strengthen Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Secretary Rice said Gaza should become a place of hope for the Palestinians. She also had warm praise for Sharon for his decision to pull Israeli settlements and troops out of Gaza.

Sec. RICE: I want to underscore how much the president and I believe that this is an historic step that is being taken in the withdrawal from the Gaza, and it's a courageous step by the prime minister and by the Israeli people. This is not easy, and the next several months ahead of us are complicated and consequential to the future.

GRADSTEIN: Rice said she believes the Gaza pullback will re-energize the US-backed road map to peace, which envisions a Palestinian state. Sharon and Abbas meet on Tuesday for the first time in four months. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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