March 3rd, 2008 10:12 EST
Gaza is focus of Condoleezza Rice now in route to Middle East
By David Gollust
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on her way to the Middle East on a mission aimed at putting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track after the latest burst of Gaza violence. She begins the trip in Egypt.
Israel was ending its incursion into Gaza as Rice left Washington for the region. But the Israeli military thrust, aimed at quelling rocket fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza, prompted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to break off peace talks with Israel.
State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said the trip will give Rice an opportunity to hear about the situation directly from Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and try to get the sides to recommit to their pledge at last November's Annapolis conference to reach a peace framework by the end of this year.
Casey reiterated U.S. condemnations of Hamas for the continuing rocket fire at Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip but also said Israel should carefully weigh the consequences its retaliatory action might have:
"I don't think you'll find it surprising to hear me say that we believe that Israel has a right to defend itself. But we always ask Israel to show appropriate consideration when it comes to the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the territories," he said. "We regret any loss of innocent life that has occurred, and certainly hope that the actions will end in the near future."
Casey termed the behavior of Hamas, which seized control of Gaza nearly a year ago, "almost nihilistic," but said most Palestinians - whether living in Gaza or the West Bank - would opt for a two-state peace settlement with Israel if given the chance.
Rice begins the current trip with a stop in Cairo, added late last week when Gaza hostilities erupted in full force.
She'll meet Tuesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Ghiet and Intelligence chief Omar Soliman for talks that will include Egyptian efforts to curb arms traffic into Gaza from its territory.
Israeli officials say Iranian-made artillery rockets, with a longer range than homemade Palestinian Kassam rockets, have been smuggled into Gaza and fired in recent days at the Israeli port city of Ashkelon.
Rice will meet Palestinian President Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad late Tuesday and is due to meet Israel Prime Minister Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak Wednesday before leaving for a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels.