Abbas refuses to resume negotiations without comprehensive cease-fire
JERUSALEM: Israel launched a new incursion into Gaza Tuesday, overshadowing a new peace push by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even as she was holding talks with Premier Ehud Olmert. Rice had earlier met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who broke off all contacts with Israel Sunday after a previous incursion killed over 120 people, including dozens of civilians and 22 children, and who responded to her call for a resumption of talks with a demand for a comprehensive cease-fire.
Israeli forces backed by helicopters clashed with Hamas gunmen after several tanks entered the Gaza Strip east of the city of Khan Yunis, witnesses said. Hamas forces opened fire with small arms and mortars at the Israeli forces that entered southern Gaza near the Kissufim crossing between Israel and the Hamas-ruled territory, the witnesses said.
According to Palestinian security sources, Israeli troops were laying siege to the home of a member of the hard-line Islamic Jihad movement in the village of Al-Karara, several hundred meters from the border.
The incursion came as Olmert held talks with Rice, who had earlier called for Israel to be “very cognizant of the effects of its operations on innocent people.”
The US chief diplomat called on both Israel and the Palestinians to renew peace talks that were dealt a major blow by the deadly Israeli onslaught of the past week.
“We look forward to the resumption of negotiations as soon as possible,” Rice said after meeting Abbas.
She argued that President George W. Bush’s goal of resolving the decades-old conflict and inking a historic peace deal by the end of his term in January 2009 was still possible.
“I still believe that that can be done,” she told reporters.
Bush, too, said after meeting Jordan’s King Abdullah in Washington that he was still “optimistic” about the prospects for the peace talks, relaunched at a US conference in November after a seven-year freeze.
Bush urged the two sides to “step up” efforts to end the violence and reach a deal.
Abbas did not say when he might return to the negotiating table, but insisted that “the negotiations are necessary and we are committed to them.”
Lead Palestinian negotiator Ahmad Qorei told reporters talks would resume once Israel’s military attacks in the Palestinian territories ended.
Abbas called for a truce between Israel and the Palestinians, both in his West Bank powerbase and in Gaza, which has been ruled since June by the rival Hamas movement after the Islamists routed his forces.
“I insist on the necessity of installing a comprehensive truce in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank so that we can reach our goal of making 2008 a year of peace,” Abbas said.
But Hamas rejected the Palestinian president’s call for a reciprocal cease-fire, insisting the blame lay with Israel.
“We consider the statements of the Palestinian president about the truce an unbalanced call because the problem lies in the occupation, not in the Palestinian people,” its spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
The bloodshed continued on Tuesday, with Israeli raids killing two Palestinians in Gaza, from which militants fired three rockets, with one falling inside the Jewish state.
Rice reiterated that the rocket fire had to stop and called on Israel – which earned international condemnation for excessive use of force during the Gaza attacks – to spare innocent lives during its raids.
“The US … understands Israel’s right to defend itself, but Israel needs to be very cognizant of the effects of its operations on innocent people,” she said.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that the strikes on Gaza would continue as long as militants fired rockets, and he placed the responsibility for the killing of civilians on Hamas.
“The operations will continue,” he said during a visit to northern Israel. “To those who criticize us, our friends among us, I say that the responsibility lies with those who fire rockets.”
Rice’s visit coincided with the publication of a Vanity Fair article saying that she and Bush covertly worked to oust Hamas after it won 2006 parliamentary elections, breaking Fatah’s decades-long hold on power.
Citing confidential documents, the magazine said the United States sought to arm a force led by Fatah loyalists to oust Hamas militants from power, but that the plan backfired.
“Instead of driving its enemies out of power, US-backed Fatah fighters inadvertently provoked Hamas to seize total control of Gaza,” it said.
l WASHINGTON: US President George W. Bush said Tuesday he was still “optimistic” about winning a Middle East peace deal before he leaves office in January, but urged Israelis and Palestinians to do more.
“Ten months is a long time. May seem short to you, but there’s plenty of time to get a deal done,” Bush added as he discussed the sputtering peace process with Jordan’s King Abdullah II at the White House.
“This is a process that, you know, always has two steps forward and one step back. We’ve just got to make sure that it’s only one step back,” Bush declared after the talks foundered amid the violence in Gaza.