Israel freezes contacts with Palestinians after attacks on settlers
White House says Bush will urge Abbas to crack down on militants
Israel suspended all security contacts with the Palestinians and sealed off biblical Bethlehem in a West Bank clampdown on Monday after gunmen killed three settlers in the deadliest attack on Israelis in months. The White House said U.S. President George W. Bush will urge Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas when they meet this week to pursue efforts to crack down on militant attacks against Israelis.
Spokesman Scott McClellan said: "President Abbas has been someone who has spoken out about ending the violence and stopping the terror, and we appreciate that ... We continue to urge the Palestinian leadership to take steps to put in place law and order in Gaza and move forward on good governance."
Abbas condemned Sunday's deadly shooting attacks, saying "these acts caused enormous damage to the cease-fire that all Palestinian organizations are committed to respect."
But he expressed confidence that Israel's contacts with his Palestinian Authority would soon be resumed.
"We are sure they [contacts] will resume as quickly as possible because we have many issues to discuss with the Israelis," he said upon arrival in Paris ahead of talks with French President Jacques Chirac.
We have begun to plant democracy and the state of law, and we are fully determined to go all the way to the end of this road," he said outside the presidential Elysee Palace.
Chirac said he hoped Israel's withdrawal from Gaza would "give impetus to a political process, a process leading to peace, which will allow two viable states to live side by side in peace and security." Chirac reiterated France's support for the "road map" peace plan.
The two leaders also discussed EU plans to advise the Palestinian police force starting in January and projects to develop airports and ports infrastructure projects in Gaza, the presidential palace said.
Egypt also urged a swift resumption of dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians.
"We hear these things from time to time, we hear about discussions being broken off but both sides always resume dialogue very quickly because it is the only way to overcome obstacles and take the peace process forward," said a spokesman for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who met with Abbas in Cairo.
Israel said it was halting temporarily all security contacts with the PA, which had been expanded in recent months to include coordination of the pullout from the Gaza Strip.
"As a result of yesterday's attacks we are taking defensive action," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. "There is a temporary suspension of contacts between the Defense Ministry and military personnel and Palestinian counterparts," including talks on prisoner releases and arrangements for the Gaza-Egypt border.
Israel also raised the prospect that it might postpone once again a long-delayed Israeli-Palestinian summit, which had been expected in late October or early November after Abbas returns from Washington.
"In the current situation, we cannot move forward with the political process," said Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim.
In the occupied West Bank, the army set up roadblocks, some recently dismantled, around the town of Bethlehem. Residents were allowed in and out only on foot.
Israeli troops also closed the main entrance to the neighboring West Bank city of Hebron and imposed closures near Ramallah.
Reinstating restrictions eased since a February truce, Israel also banned Palestinian cars from certain roads. The occupation army also arrested 19 suspected militants in raids in the territory.
The Israeli moves were roundly condemned by Palestinian officials, who warned that the measures would prove counter-productive.
Prime Minister Ahmad Qorei said: "This will only add fuel to the fire. We call on the Israelis to immediately stop these moves and to allow the Palestinian Authority to do its job."
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said the clampdown would only make matters worse. "It is very unfortunate because we should not allow such incidents to deter and undermine the peace process," he said.
Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan Khatib said Sunday's attack was designed to weaken Abbas and the decision to freeze contacts would only strengthen hard-liners.
The shooting was "a blow to the Israelis on the personal level but also a blow to the Palestinians," he said.
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed the two attacks outside the Gush Etzion settlement bloc and the Eli settlement, saying it was avenging the killings of militants.
The settlers killed in the Gush Etzion attack - two women, aged 21 and 23, and a 15-year-old youth - were buried Monday. Two settlers were wounded in the second ambush. - Agencies