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Wednesday, February 18, 2004

U.S. Seeks Safeguards for Israel's Gaza Pullout

Washington Post

Three senior administration officials plan to impress upon Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this week that his plan to withdraw Israeli settlers from Gaza needs safeguards to reduce the possibility that the Islamic Resistance Movement, also known as Hamas, or other radical Palestinian groups will fill a sudden power vacuum, U.S. officials said.

In the absence of Palestinian action against militant groups, the Bush administration has for many weeks signaled that it is supportive of Sharon's plan to "disengage" from the Palestinians. The officials -- deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley, national security senior director Elliott Abrams and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns -- are arriving in Israel today with a list of questions to better understand how the plan would unfold, how it is connected to possible unilateral steps on the West Bank, and how it meshes with the broader goal of establishing a Palestinian state...

U.S. officials appear especially eager to obtain a commitment that Sharon's plan does not signal an abandonment of the U.S.-backed "road map" plan. While the road map has been moribund for months, Bush has staked his credibility on it, especially among his European and Arab counterparts...

Sharon appears likely to offer concessions on the planned route of a fence separating Israelis and Palestinians, and to renew pledges to ease travel restrictions and road blocks in the West Bank. "Everything we do will be in the context and framework of President Bush's vision and the road map," said Danny Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to the United States. "This is a fundamental understanding we have with the administration"...

U.S. officials are especially concerned that the Palestinian Authority is so weakened that a more radical party, such as Hamas, could emerge as the de facto ruler in the wake of the Israeli departure.

"Hamas is the strongest political party in Gaza, bar none," said Edward G. Abington, a consultant to the Palestinian Authority who just returned from a trip to the region. He said the Israeli departure could fuel a "real power struggle" among Palestinians, particularly between Hamas and Mohammed Dahlan, a former Palestinian cabinet minister with a strong following in Gaza.

Israeli officials say they also do not want a Hamas ascendancy in Gaza. But they appear to welcome a fracturing of the Palestinians...