US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday urged Israel to take more concrete steps to ease the lives of West Bank Palestinians on her latest trip to the region to boost peace efforts.
"We hope to improve the opportunities around the West Bank for people to have economic opportunity in a secure environment," she said after meeting Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank political capital of Ramallah.
Rice told reporters that the changes should have "a real effect on the lives of people," adding that US mediators were "trying to look not just at quantity but also at the quality of improvements."
On her last visit to the region, Rice secured an Israeli pledge to remove some 50 of the 500-plus roadblocks across the occupied West Bank, but the Palestinians and the United Nations said the move was largely insignificant.
Rice told reporters that improving conditions in the West Bank depended on "responsible actions" by Abbas's Palestinian Authority which she said "are really now taking place."
Rice specifically praised the decision to deploy some 600 Palestinian police reinforcements to the town of Jenin as part of a security crackdown in the north of the territory aimed at building confidence with Israel.
"I think you are going to see improvements in the West Bank and the Israelis will also really have to do their part," she added.
Hours later, the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees announced it would again suspend food aid distribution in the Gaza Strip from Monday because of a lack of fuel due to the Israeli blockade of the Hamas-run territory.
UNRWA's decision followed the Israeli army's closure of two key crossings with Gaza through which most of territory is supplied after they came under mortar fire.
The agency previously halted aid distribution for four days last month for the same reasons.
On her 15th visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories in less than two years, Rice said she remained hopeful that the two sides could strike a peace deal by the time US President George W. Bush leaves office in 2009.
Abbas told the same press conference that "the negotiations are being carried on every day and every hour.
"Everyone seems serious, and expresses hope that we will arrive at an agreement to establish a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem this year," he added.
His spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina, however, later said "the gulf is still wide in the negotiations with the Israeli side" and urged Washington to put more pressure on Israel to halt the growth of settlements and dismantle outposts.
Rice earlier held a three-way meeting with Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad in Jerusalem on efforts to improve conditions in the West Bank.
She hosted another three-way meeting with the two sides' chief peace negotiators, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qorei.
The US official arrived in Tel Aviv late on Saturday after talks with the other main sponsors of the Middle East peace process in London and dined with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at his Jerusalem residence.
Olmert has vowed to press ahead with peace talks despite a new corruption probe against him, the fifth such investigation since he formed his government two years ago.
"We have a national agenda, I have an agenda as prime minister of Israel, and I intend to keep my agenda," he said, adding that he would have breakfast with Rice and lunch with Abbas on Monday.
The peace talks have been mired by violence in Gaza and Israel's continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want to make the capital of their promised state.
Livni conceded that Israel's recent settlement activity had led to "frustration" among the Palestinians, but vowed Israel would remove settlements under a future agreement.
Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, quoted in a Qatari newspaper, criticised both Israel and the Palestinians for keeping the status of their negotiations under wraps.
"They do not want to reveal the nature of such negotiations, preferring to keep it secret," he said.
Cairo has been leading efforts to secure a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza militants that would see an easing of an Israeli blockade on the Hamas-ruled territory, which has been sidelined in the current peace talks.
The foreign ministry in Cairo later clarified that Abul Gheit, in his remarks carried in Qatar's Ash-Sharq, had not reported progress in the talks.
"There should not be a bad interpretation of the situation, to think that there is progress when there is nothing concrete to indicate this," it said in a statement.