U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said there is a need for more coordination with Israel over the intended Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements, Palestinian sources reported on Saturday.

Rice’s comments were made in a press conference held in Ramallah following her meeting with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Rice praised Abbas’ efforts to ensure security ahead of the pullout.

‘I want to take this opportunity to commend President Abbas and his leadership as well as that of his government for their ongoing efforts to enforce the rule of law in the West Bank and in Gaza,’ Rice said.

‘Rice demanded more Palestinian efforts to consolidate the truce,’ said Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan Al-Khatib.

Rice said that after the withdrawal from Gaza Strip, the United States wanted to make sure that the territory was not kept sealed and that Palestinians had access to the West Bank.

Rice asserted that freedom of movement for the Palestinians is vital especially for developing the deteriorated economic situation of the Gaza Strip.

‘That means when the Israelis withdraw from Gaza they cannot be sealed or isolated as an area, with the Palestinian people closed in after that withdrawal,’ Rice said.

Rice reiterated the United States’ commitment to ensuring that there was a stop to Israeli settlement activity. However, there are no signs of any halt to settlements activity despite repetitive American pledges to do so.

Abbas asserted that the Gaza withdrawal must be a step in preparation for the US-backed Road Map peace plan and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

‘Israel should be aware that the withdrawal from Gaza must be a step in the road map and must be followed immediately with the resumption of the political process,’ Abbas said.

Abbas said before the meeting that Israel is keeping the Palestinian leadership in the dark about what he described as crucial issues.

‘We need information how the disengagement will take place, when, where will it begin, what is the fate of the border crossings, what is the fate of the Palestinian airport,’ Abbas told Reuters in an interview. ‘We’re not getting any answers.’

Ereikat: We demand halt to Wall, settlements expansion, assassinations

Dr. Sa’eb Ereikat, head of the negotiations committee with Israel, said on Friday that the Palestinian Authority will ask three major things from the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Results of the meeting will be announced in a press conference in Ramallah, Saturday afternoon.

Rice is slated to meet with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Saturday, in addition to other PA officials, including Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, and Civil Affairs Minister, in charge of the disengagement file, Mohammad Dahlan, Palestinian sources reported.

Ereikat said the PA will focus in the meeting on a U.S. help in maintaining calm and to push Israel to halt the assassinations and arrests Israel is carrying in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Ereikat said, truce must be reciprocated and synchronized to succeed.

He added, halting Israeli settlement activities and the construction of the wall will be the second major point of focus, saying that this jeopardize chances for the two states solution suggested by the Road Map. There can be no Palestinian state given the planned route of the wall and settlements, since they prevent territorial contiguity, he added.

U.S. president George W. Bush had earlier announced a plan to establish a viable Palestinian state that enjoys territorial contiguity.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on the other hand, reiterated a long standing stance; that the settlement blocs in the West Bank are part of Israel and will remain so under any future agreement. This stance was approved by Bush in April 2004.

The Palestinian leaders will also demand Rice to push Israel to coordinate the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four minor West Bank settlements. PA officials have been complaining the lack of coordination on this important step, including the fate of the crossing points and transfer of goods in and out of the Gaza Strip and the link between the Strip and the West Bank.

Rice met with Sharon in his ranch in the Negev on Friday during which, according to Israeli sources, Rice discussed the necessity of coordination of the pullout plan with the Palestinians.