Rice offers Abbas plan to ease blockade of Gaza

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The Independent Online

Israel and the Palestinian Authority are studying an American plan to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip and strengthen Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate President, in his power struggle with Hamas.

During talks this week with Mr Abbas and Israeli ministers, Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, pressed for an early agreement to open the Karni freight crossing through which Palestinian agricultural exports pass on their way from Gaza to European markets via the Israeli port of Ashdod.

Israel has frequently closed the terminal, which it says is a target for Palestinian bombers. It was reopened briefly this week for Ramadan, as was the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

Ms Rice, who left yesterday for a surprise visit to Baghdad on her way back to Washington, proposed a $25.5m (£13.5m) security centre for checking lorries on the Palestinian side of Karni. To meet Israel's concerns, it would be manned by Mr Abbas's presidential guard, supported by international monitors. The Americans are also offering $26m to expand the presidential guard from 3,500 to 6,000 men. They hope this will give Mr Abbas a chance to head off an incipient civil war between his own Fatah party supporters and the Hamas government, which is boycotted by the international community because it refuses to recognise Israel, accept previous agreements and renounce violence. Ms Rice told Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister, that the boycott was effective and would remain in force.

Nabil Amr, an adviser to Mr Abbas, said they were waiting for more details and to see how Israel responded.

Hamas called on the President to resume power-sharing negotiations, which Mr Abbas said had reached a dead end. The party threatened to use " available options" if he refused.

* High-level talks on the Iranian nuclear stand-off will take place in London today, the Foreign Office said last night. Condoleezza Rice will fly into London to join the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, and representatives from France, Germany, Russia and China. The so-called EU3+3 will discuss the latest situation days after the UK warned it was ready to seek sanctions against Tehran.

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