Amr Nabil  /  AP file
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia
By Tom Aspell Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/17/2004 3:37:48 PM ET 2004-05-17T19:37:48

At the end of an exceedingly violent week in the Gaza Strip -- even by the appalling standards of the nearly four-year-old Palestinian intifada -- the United States is taking steps toward a reengagement with the Palestinians.

After two more Israeli soldiers were killed Friday near Rafah, the toll of Israeli casualties in Gaza rose to 13 for the week, while an estimated 29 Palestinians have died in clashes.

Yet, with the U.S. reputation in the Arab world continuing on a downward spiral — particularly with the recent disclosure of the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq — American overtures toward the Palestinians and a seeming interest in the Middle East peace process couldn't come at better time.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will meet Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia on Saturday at the World Economic Forum in Jordan. Powell said on Friday that Israel must be pressured into acting in accordance with existing peace agreements, but that the U.S. expects the Palestinian Authority to begin fighting terror. 

The United States will hold further talks with the Palestinians on Monday when National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice meets with Qureia in Berlin.

The two steps are small and unlikely to change the situation on the ground in Gaza very quickly, but with peace talks otherwise at a virtual standstill, the move is significant.  

Sharon pressing timetable
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is continuing his effort to withdraw 7,500 Jewish settlers and many more military personnel sustaining them from the Gaza Strip, home to more than 1.3 million Palestinians. 

Sharon's plan got the endorsement of President Bush and Britain's Tony Blair, but was rejected in Israel by the prime minister's own ruling Likud Party. Nevertheless, by changing the makeup of his coalition government if necessary, Sharon appears determined to meet his own rough timetable and have the Gaza settlers out within two years.

For Israelis, a pullback from the Gaza Strip is being compared with their military's retreat from Lebanon in May 2000, and generating the same passionate political debate in a country weary of the ever-continuing stalemate in the peace process. 

This weekend hundreds of thousands of left-wingers supporting a withdrawal from Gaza will demonstrate in Tel Aviv. Many will be calling on the United States to take a more active part on the issue. At the very least they would like to see Washington arrange more direct meetings between Israeli and Palestinians officials.

The Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat has also called for American intervention to halt the current violence in Gaza.

"This is a catastrophe. At a time when the Israelis are speaking of disengaging from Gaza this is really re-engaging," Erekat told The Associated Press. "I hope that President Bush, who says he is encouraged by disengagement, will interfere to stop the demolitions."

Expectations of U.S. low
Few Israelis or Palestinians expect dramatic input from the United States during an American election year. 

The American military and political efforts in Iraq also leave few resources for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the moment, even though Arab states agree that the two wars are directly connected.   Searching for peace

A few years ago the U.S. CIA and the FBI were working with Israeli and Palestinian security services to reduce hostility between the two sides, but these days even diplomatic contacts are at a low-level.

Gaza is not nearly as important to Israel's security as the West Bank. Israel occupied both Palestinian areas in 1967. Gaza is tightly fenced on three sides by an impervious system of barriers and electronic alarms and the Mediterranean Sea runs along its entire western edge. 

It is extremely difficult for radical Palestinians to attack targets inside Israel so they have increased their attacks on Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers protecting them inside the Gaza Strip, and they have once again drawn international attention to the conflict over Israel's policy of settling Jews on Arab land.

But most Palestinians agree the policy will not, in the current American political climate, persuade the U.S. government to pressure Israel into pulling out in the near future.

Many Palestinians think military pressure on Israeli soldiers and settlers will affect Israeli public opinion more effectively.

Tom Aspell is an NBC News correspondent based out of Tel Aviv. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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