JERUSALEM — Palestinian militants ambushed Israeli soldiers doing construction work along the Gaza-Egypt border Sunday and killed one of them in the latest violation of a shaky 4-month-old cease-fire. One of the attackers was also killed, the army said.
Despite the violence, the two sides pushed forward with coordination of Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in mid-August. They were prodded by Secretary Condoleezza Rice, who wrapped up a two-day visit to the region Sunday by saying she was reassured Israel and the Palestinians are committed to a peaceful pullout.
“Israel and the Palestinian Authority share a commitment to ensure that disengagement happens smoothly, without violence,” Rice said at a news conference in Jerusalem.
She said the two sides had agreed to coordinate the removal of settler homes in Gaza, which would allow construction of larger apartment buildings for Palestinians in the densely populated area.
Rice’s visit, ahead of an Israeli-Palestinian summit Tuesday, appeared to give new momentum to cooperation on the Israeli withdrawal.
He said the Palestinians already have thwarted “dozens” of attacks with Israeli cooperation. But he said his forces “can’t control everything” because of limited resources.
Abbas also said he is prepared to work with Israel in removing settler homes in Gaza, and expects to reach an agreement allowing Palestinian security forces to enter the settlements after the withdrawal to prevent theft and looting.
Later Sunday, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, now an international envoy involved in preparations for the Gaza pullout, met with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials to discuss such issues as the home demolitions and movement of Palestinians in and out of Gaza. Israeli and Palestinian officials said the meeting was productive, but no agreements were reached.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed the Gaza pullout early last year as a unilateral act meant to improve security. About 8,500 settlers live in Gaza, surrounded by about 1.3 million Palestinians.
Sharon said Sunday he hopes the pullout, accompanied by a withdrawal from part of the West Bank, will lead to a resumption of peace talks. But he said future progress would depend on the Palestinians’ ability to crack down on militants.
Israel fears militants, wanting to claim victory, will step up attacks during the withdrawal, and has threatened harsh retaliation if settlers or troops are attacked.
Sunday’s attack was the second major assault on Israeli targets in Gaza in recent days. The Israeli army said the soldiers were ambushed while they were reinforcing a wall along the Egyptian border with Gaza meant to stop smuggling. The attacks were in a volatile area near the Rafah refugee camp where a number of tunnels used for weapons smuggling have been uncovered.
The militant group Islamic Jihad said it carried out the attack in a joint operation with a small violent group loosely affiliated with Abbas’ Fatah movement.
The groups also claimed responsibility for Saturday’s attack in which Palestinian militants opened fire at an army post, sparking a gunbattle that killed one of the attackers. Islamic Jihad said it was still committed to the cease-fire but was retaliating for Israel’s killing two of its militants on June 7.
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