Rice: U.S. Will Aid Palestinians' Living Conditions

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, says the United States is "very concerned" about the plight of the Palestinians. The secretary said the United States will redouble efforts to improve living conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. is very concerned about deteriorating living standards for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. After meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Rice said the U.S. will redouble efforts to improve living conditions for Palestinians. Meanwhile, rising violence among Palestinians has further crippled efforts to form a Palestinian unity government.

NPR's Eric Westervelt was in Ramallah today and joins us to talk about Secretary Rice's visit. And Eric, did Secretary Rice explain what she meant by redoubling efforts to help the Palestinian people?

ERIC WESTERVELT: No, she offered few details, Melissa. It's Ramadan, and she expressed, quote, "sadness" that many Palestinians are going without basic food items during this holy month, but Rice offered no plans or emergency aid other than saying the U.S. would, quote, "work toward better conditions for the Palestinian people."

BLOCK: And the Palestinians would have been hoping for more?

WESTERVELT: Exactly. On another key issue, the ability to move goods and people freely across the Palestinian territories, Rice today said I know there are hardships caused by the lack of mobility and access at these crossing points. And she pledged, quote, "I will see what I can do to see that some of these crossings are opened longer and more frequently."

But she made a similar pledge almost a year ago, and there's been only very limited progress, so many here on the ground want to see actions, not just words. The Israelis are in no mood to ease restrictions, especially since militants linked to the ruling Hamas movement are holding an Israeli soldier captive and efforts to free him so far have failed.

BLOCK: Israel and the West imposed an aid embargo on the Palestinian government after the militant Islamic group Hamas won parliamentary elections in January. And now talks between Hamas and the rival Fatah movement on a unity government have broken down. What happens now?

WESTERVELT: That's right. Abbas today said there is no dialogue, essentially confirming what had become painfully obvious since a dozen Palestinians have been killed this week in Fatah and Hamas violence in Gaza and the West Bank.

So what happens now? People on the street are very worried, Melissa, that the violence could escalate. Fatah leaders have talked about options that could include dissolving the Hamas-led government, declaring a state of emergency and calling for new parliamentary elections.

Hamas disputes that those options are even allowed under Palestinian law and any attempt by Abbas to dissolve the government is very likely to spark more violence. Hamas loyalists see Fatah as a corrupt old guard trying to undo the results now of a democratic election.

BLOCK: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit today was clearly intended to give a boost to Mahmoud Abbas and his leadership. It was the Bush administration's third meeting with him in less than a month. Do you think these meetings will improve his standing among the Palestinian people?

WESTERVELT: Well, it's not clear. It could have the opposite effect. Many Palestinians are very angry at the U.S. and lack of Western sanctions, the stalled peace talks, as well as America's handling of the war this summer between Israel and Hezbollah and other regional issues.

And today, Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader and Palestinian prime minister, denounced Rice's visit, saying she's, quote, "out to rearrange this region in a way that serves only the American and Israeli agendas." But some of that rhetoric is playing very well on the Palestinian street these days.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Eric Westervelt. Thanks very much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

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