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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Powell Ends Middle East Mission

JERUSALEM -- Israel sealed the Gaza Strip on Monday, imposing the most sweeping restrictions in years, and its troops killed three Palestinians in clashes there, as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell wound up a Middle East mission.

Powell asked the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers to take action on the "road map" peace plan; Palestinians are expected to rein in militants, and Israel is to ease restrictions that have caused much hardship in the Palestinian areas.

However, the visit ended without visible results. Palestinian leaders expressed disappointment that Powell failed to prod Israel to accept the three-stage, three-year plan. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has expressed major reservations, and is to air them in a meeting next week with U.S. President George W. Bush.

Before leaving for Washington, Sharon is to meet with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, in what would be the highest-level Israeli-Palestinian talks in nearly three years.

On Sunday, as Powell met separately with Sharon and Abbas, Israel lifted a closure on the West Bank and Gaza, allowing several thousand Palestinians to return to jobs in Israel, while continuing to enforce travel restrictions between towns.

However, the military reimposed the closure on Gaza early Monday, citing unspecified security considerations. It barred Palestinians and all foreigners, with the exception of diplomats, from leaving and entering the coastal strip.

The open-ended travel ban marked the first time in years that foreign nationals, including journalists, were being kept out of Gaza for an extended period.

A United Nations agency that assists hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees said the blockade was seriously disrupting its Gaza operations.

"We've never seen anything like this," said Paul McCann, a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency. "This morning we couldn't even get our diplomatic pouch out."

The restrictions were imposed three days after the military announced that foreigners must sign security waivers as they enter Gaza and promise to stay away from "combat areas."

Human rights groups have accused the army of trying to prevent monitoring of Israel military actions against Palestinians.

The new rules were announced after two Britons traveled from Gaza to Tel Aviv, where one blew himself up at a pub on April 30, killing three Israelis. His accomplice remains at large.

In tightening restrictions, the military also referred specifically to keeping out members of the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group that has sent foreign volunteers to trouble spots to serve as buffers between troops and Palestinian civilians. Dozens of activists have been deported by Israel.

In the first sign that a thaw might be developing, Israel and the Palestinians have resumed security contacts. Israel Radio said Israeli Major General Amos Gilad met over the weekend with Mohammed Dahlan, minister in charge of security in the Palestinian Cabinet. Such contacts were a key element of interim peace accords but were suspended because of the violence.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, said they had expected more from the Powell visit. "Mr. Powell came without a positive Israeli response [to the road map] ... and that is very unfortunate," Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said.