March 4th, 2008 05:42 EST
Palestinians urged to meet with Israelis
By Challiss McDonough
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called for an end to Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli cities near the Gaza Strip and has urged Israel to try harder to reduce civilian casualties in its military response. Rice spoke in Cairo after meeting with top Egyptian officials in an effort to salvage Middle East peace negotiations.
Secretary Rice called for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to resume, saying the situation in the Middle East needs negotiations, not finger-pointing.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas broke off negotiations with Israel because of an Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 100 Palestinians in the past week, about half of them civilians.
Speaking to reporters in Cairo alongside the Egyptian foreign minister, Rice said Israel has the right to defend its citizens from rockets attacks that have originated in Gaza, saying no Israeli government could tolerate that.
"There needs to be a stop to the rockets, and there needs to be an awareness of what is happening to innocent civilians and an effort to prevent innocent people from being harmed," said Rice. "Now there also needs to be an active peace process, and that active peace process is going to have to withstand efforts by rejectionists to keep peace from being made."
Neither Rice nor her Egyptian counterpart called for a ceasefire in Gaza. Israel withdrew its troops from Gaza on Monday, but Israeli officials have indicated they could be sent back in.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit criticized what he called Israel's unequal use of force and exaggerated military response to the situation in Gaza.
He said Hamas is part of the Palestinian equation and will eventually have to be dealt with and brought into the peace process. "It will be a 'must' that Hamas will have to be convinced to come on board," he noted. "If they will mend their ways, and if that [resorting] violence and military action - if that comes to an end - then that will be opening the way for Hamas to join."
Rice refused to comment directly on a story published Monday in the American magazine Vanity Fair that said the United States and Fatah had planned to overthrow Hamas after the group won a majority in the Palestinian legislature in 2006.
Rice blamed the crisis in Gaza on Hamas and said the United States and other Western nations will likely continue to train and equip the Palestinian Authority security forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah-led government controls the West Bank.
"So if the answer is that Hamas gets armed by the Iranians, and nobody helps to improve the security capabilities of the legitimate Palestinian Authority security forces, that is not a very good situation," said Rice.
In her talks with Egyptian officials including President Hosni Mubarak, Secretary Rice also discussed the situations in Iraq and Darfur, as well as the ongoing political crisis in Lebanon, which has not had a president since November.
She defended the decision to send a U.S. Navy warship to the coast of Lebanon, saying the United States would defend its allies. The move has been sharply criticized by many in the region who say it will only add to the tension in Lebanon.