The "Quartet" called on Tuesday for reorganizing Palestinian leadership to counter "terror" attacks on Israel and said territory evacuated by Israel should be handed over quickly to the Palestinian Authority.
"Hope is in short supply," said Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowan as representatives of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia reaffirmed their call for negotiations between Israel and the PA within the framework of the "road map".
In a three-page statement summarizing their discussions, they endorsed again establishment of a Palestinian state and "took positive note" of a proposal by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull-out Israeli troops and all 7,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza Strip - a proposal that members of Israel's ruling Likud party rejected on earlier this week.
"The Quartet welcomes and encourages such a step, which should provide a rare moment of opportunity in the search for peace in the Middle East," the statement said.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who participated at the meeting, said during a press conference that President Bush "has not abandoned their hope for a Palestinian state."
Powell said Sharon's proposal, which the prime minister may revise in an attempt to gain approval in Israel, is "an opportunity that ought to be seized."
But the Quartet's statement said Israel should link any pullback to the "road map" and with establishment of a Palestinian state.
Israel was urged, meanwhile, to ease roadblocks, cease demolishing Palestinians' homes and to "exert maximum efforts to avoid civilian casualties."
On the Palestinian side, the Quartet said Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei should be given more power to strengthen security forces and carry out reforms, including a process for holding elections.
The Palestinian U.N. observer, Nasser Al-Kidwa, dismissed the Quartet's statement as "mumbling that could mean anything." According to The AP, he added that the statement reflected the Bush administration's agenda "especially when it comes to what is requested from the Palestinian side and the absence of what is requested from the Israeli side."
Two Palestinians dead in Gaza Strip
On the ground, an Israeli gunship helicopter fired a missile early Tuesday at a group of Palestinians in the Khan Younis refugee camp, killing two and injuring at least 17, locals and doctors said.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said the attack was directed against "militants" following incidents in the area.
Witnesses said the Palestinians targeted by the helicopter fired two missiles at Israeli tanks before the helicopter struck. Residents said one of the dead Palestinians was Bilal Hamdan, 25, while the other was a 15-year-old bystander.
The attack came during an Israeli operation in two parts of the camp. Tanks and bulldozers leveled land and demolished buildings.
According to The AP, doctors at Khan Younis hospital said some of the wounded lost limbs.
Also early Tuesday, Israeli forces took up positions around Palestinian president Yasser Arafat's office building in the West Bank city of Ramallah, witnesses said.
They said Israeli vehicles surrounded the complex and soldiers took over buildings across from the compound. Israeli officials said soldiers were arresting Palestinians, but the operation was not linked to Arafat's office. (Albawaba.com)
© 2004 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)