ISTANBUL - TDN with wire dispatches
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads for Israel and the Palestinian territories yesterday in another bid to push the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process forward. Rice "will travel to Israel and the Palestinian Territories on August 24," said spokesman Sean McCormack.
McCormack said Rice's talks would include senior Israeli and Palestinian officials and would cover "ongoing efforts to create positive and lasting peace in the region and progress towards the shared goal of a peace agreement in 2008."
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told Agence France-Presse on August 17 that Rice will meet with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, then hold three-way talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and senior Palestinian diplomat Ahmed Qorei.
The two sides formally re-launched the peace process after a seven-year hiatus at a US conference in November, with the goal of signing a full peace deal by the time President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009. Rice has already visited the region 17 times in the past two years.
Coinciding with the secretary's trip will be a meeting in Cairo of leading Palestinian factions that will send envoys to Egypt for talks aimed at ending months of bitter infighting.
Nafid Azzam, a senior leader in Islamic Jihad, said his movement would send delegations to Cairo for talks aimed at reconciliation between the Fatah movement and their Hamas rival.
The two main Palestinian factions have been bitterly divided since June 2007, when Hamas seized power in Gaza after routing forces loyal to Abbas, the head of Fatah, in a week of bloody street battles.
Spokesmen for two smaller groups, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), also said they would send envoys to Egypt next week.
Activists reach Gaza shore:
Meanwhile, two boats carrying activists challenging an Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip reached the shore of the Hamas-controlled territory on Saturday.
The 44 "Free Gaza" activists from 17 nations, who had set out on Friday from Cyprus in two wooden boats, were met by thousands of Palestinians who cheered along the shoreline at their arrival.
"Today is a special day, we hope it's the beginning. We have opened the path and we hope there will be more travellers," said Vittorio Arrigoni, an Italian peace activist, after the ship anchored off shore.
Israel pulled its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but tightened restrictions on the territory after Hamas Islamists routed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's security forces to seize control there more than a year ago.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said Israel's navy, which patrols the Gaza coastline, allowed the boats to enter Gaza "in order to avoid a well-publicized provocation in the middle of the sea".
"Because we know who is on the boats and what they contain ... we will allow them to land," Mekel said, adding there had been no contact between the navy and the activists at sea.
Several boats carrying flag-waving Gazans met the seafaring activists just offshore and escorted them on the last leg of their 240 nautical mile voyage.
"The arrival of the two ships after this adventure represents a big breakthrough in the wall of the Israeli siege imposed on Gaza," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri as he watched the ships approach the coast.Rami Abbo, a spokesman for the Palestinian Anti-Siege Committee, a group with ties to Hamas, called the ships' arrival "a victory for the will of the Palestinian people".