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US, other nations set to pledge aid for Palestinian Authority

Leaders seeking signs of 'break with the past'

LONDON -- Hoping to build on reforms since the death of Yasser Arafat, the United States and other nations will pledge $4.5 billion and political support today for the Palestinian Authority at a conference in London.

But leaders said they will watch closely for commitments from newly elected Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to overhaul the Palestinian economy, its tangled security services, and an administration rife with corruption.

''The real focus of this conference is what the Palestinians need to do right now in order to set their house in order, to demonstrate that this is a break with the past," said Nigel Roberts, who is representing the World Bank at the meeting.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and a host of European and Arab foreign ministers will attend the meeting. Israel will not be represented.

En route to the meeting, Rice said the suicide bombing that killed five in Tel Aviv on Friday need not dim the best hope in years for a peace deal in the region.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the London meeting was a ''vital practical step" toward the moribund 2003 ''road map" peace plan, which envisions establishment of a Palestinian state and a series of steps, including the end of fighting and of Jewish settlement activity.

In Jerusalem yesterday, Israel's defense minister warned that he will send large forces into Palestinian neighborhoods if Israeli troops and settlers come under fire during the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer.

The military faces twin threats during the pullout, from extremist settlers and Palestinian militants. Settlers want to stop the evacuation of all 21 settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank, while militants want to show they are driving the Israelis out by force.

Israeli officials said yesterday that they might leave houses in Gaza settlements intact, reversing earlier assertions they would be torn down to spare the settlers the vision of Palestinians taking them over.

Palestinian attacks during the Gaza withdrawal ''would require us to go into Palestinian Authority territory with very, very large forces to those places which overlook the areas to be evacuated," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said.

As part of the truce declared earlier this month by Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel has stopped its frequent raids into Palestinian areas of Gaza.

Originally described as ''unilateral disengagement," the Gaza pullout is shaping up now as a joint effort involving Israel, the Palestinians, and Egypt.

The death of Arafat on Nov. 11 brought about the change. Israel, with US backing, boycotted Arafat, accusing him of involvement in Palestinian violence.

His successor, Abbas, spoke out against Palestinian attacks and cajoled militant groups into an informal cease-fire, leading to a Feb. 8 summit in Egypt where Israel and the Palestinians declared an end to four years of bloodshed. Sharon offered to coordinate the pullout with Palestinian forces to keep Gaza from falling into the hands of militants like Hamas.

Also, Egypt said it would post 750 soldiers on the Gaza-Egypt border if Israel withdraws from the border road. Israel is still considering what to do, after hundreds of raids there to search for tunnels the Palestinians use to smuggle arms and other contraband into Gaza from Egypt.

In deciding on the Gaza withdrawal last year, the Israeli Cabinet initially said it would destroy settlement buildings. However, national security adviser Giora Eiland said that is not recommended now because it would increase the cost of the withdrawal by about $18.4 million.

Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon warned that demolishing the homes would require Israel to deal with tons of trash, some of it containing asbestos, a carcinogen.

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