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Rice, Sharon Hail Gaza Pullout as Key to Middle East Peace

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has concluded a two-day peace mission to Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Secretary Rice held talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem, after meeting Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah Saturday. She said both leaders agreed to coordinate Israel's planned pullout from Gaza, which is due to begin in just two months.

"Israel and the Palestinian Authority share a commitment to ensure that 'disengagement' happens smoothly, without violence," said Ms. Rice.

Under Mr. Sharon's disengagement plan, 21 Gaza settlements will be dismantled, and more than 8,000 settlers removed from their homes.

Ms. Rice told a Jerusalem news conference that the pullout could give a boost to the internationally-backed "roadmap" peace plan "toward realizing the vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security."

Both sides also agreed that the homes in the Gaza settlements will be destroyed.

"You have 1,200 plus houses, you have a population of 1.3 million Palestinians, and, I think, that the view is that there are better land use opportunities," said Ms. Rice.

The aim is to replace the settler homes with high rise apartments to ease the Palestinian housing shortage.

Prime Minister Sharon said the disengagement could energize the peace process, but he said that depends on the Palestinians keeping their commitments under the "roadmap."

The Palestinians must stop terror and violence, and disarm terrorist groups," Mr. Sharon said. But President Abbas is reluctant, saying confronting the militants could lead to civil war.

So, Israel wonders if Mr. Abbas can deliver. Just before Secretary Rice announced plans for a peaceful withdrawal, Palestinian gunmen from the Islamic Jihad group killed an Israeli soldier and wounded two others in a Gaza ambush.