STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is finishing her latest mission to the Middle East. She's holding separate meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and we can tell you that quite a few parties have made promises. As part of this visit, Israel has pledged to remove 50 roadblocks in the West Bank. Palestinian officials say they will do more to stop attacks on Israel, and a senior Hamas leader based in Damascus added to that offer by pledging to stop targeting civilians, provided that Israel does the same.
NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.
LINDA GRADSTEIN: The offer came in an interview Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal gave Sky News in Damascus.
Mr. KHALED MESHAAL (Hamas Leader): (Through translator) We renew our offer to Israel to let the civilian people from the two sides be free from our conflict. Israel should respond to this offer.
GRADSTEIN: Meshaal also said that captured Israeli solider Gilad Shalit, who was seized near Gaza in June 2006, is alive and is being well treated. Egypt has been trying to broker a prisoner exchange for more than a year. Hamas is demanding the release of 1,000 prisoners from Israeli jails, among them many convicted of involvement in attacks against Israel.
The Meshaal interview pointed at the dilemma faced by the Bush administration in trying to craft an Israel-Palestinian peace deal. Hamas remains in control in Gaza, while the Fatah movement of Palestinian leader of Mahmoud Abbas is in charge in the West Bank.
On this trip, Rice's 14th since the beginning of last year, she has concentrated on moves that Israel and the Palestinians should take on the ground. Israel's pledged to remove 50 roadblocks and take other steps to ease Palestinian restrictions in the West Bank. Israel has agreed in the past to remove roadblocks but has not followed through.
Secretary Rice said that Special Envoy William Fraser will make sure it happens this time.
Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (State Department): We want to be much more systematic about what is being promised and what is being done than I think we have been able to be prior to General Fraser's mission. So I think it's a very much more systematic approach.
GRADSTEIN: The United Nations says there are currently 580 roadblocks throughout the West Bank, ranging from dirt barriers outside Palestinian villages to full-fledged checkpoints. The U.N. says 30 of those roadblocks have been set up since the Annapolis peace conference at the end of last year. The U.S. statement does not detail which roadblocks will be removed.
Israel also agreed to a greater Palestinian police presence in the West Bank, including the deployment of 700 police in Jenin, similar to the deployment last year in Nablus.
Secretary Rice said she welcomes the move.
Sec. RICE: On security, one of the pledges here that I think you should note is that the Palestinian Authority Security Forces in the West Bank should assume greater responsibility. That's an important statement from both sides. There are places where they can't have full responsibility. They're not yet ready. But they're going to start to incrementally take more responsibility.
GRADSTEIN: Rice said she raised the issue of Israel's continued building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but did not give details. The Dovish Peace Now movement today released a report that Israel has recently approved a plan to construct almost 1,000 new homes in Jewish settlements. Another 750 will be built in east Jerusalem. Palestinians say settlement expansion means Israel is not serious about a peace deal.
Rice said that while this trip focused on steps both sides can take on the ground, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are meeting frequently to discuss the outline of a final peace deal, including the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of Jerusalem, and the return of Palestinian refugees. She said these talks are making progress, and the fact that there have been no leaks of these discussions is actually a good sign.
Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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