Friday, February 29, 2008

Rice Urges End to Hamas Rocket Attacks

Associated Press

TOKYO — Secretary of State Rice said today that Hamas rocket attacks against Israel "need to stop," demanding an end to the escalating violence that has rocked the Gaza Strip and set back American efforts to promote a Middle East peace deal.

Her appeal came after she met for an hour with Prime Minister Olmert of Israel, who also was visiting Japan. "I am concerned about the humanitarian conditions there and innocent people in Gaza who are being hurt," Ms. Rice told reporters following her meeting with Mr. Olmert. "We have to remember that the Hamas activities there are responsible for what has happened in Gaza — the illegal coup that they led against the legitimate institutions of the Palestinian Authority. It is very clear where this started."

The Rice-Olmert meeting came just hours after Israeli aircraft blasted Hamas government offices and metal shops in the Gaza Strip late yesterday, killing a baby and wounding more than 30 people in a retaliatory strike after a militant rocket killed an Israeli college student.

The bloodshed fed worries about a new outbreak of heavy fighting between the Israeli army and militants in the Gaza Strip.

Despite the violence, Ms. Rice is planning to visit the region next week to meet with Palestinian Arab and Israeli leaders to discuss the push to negotiate a peace accord, which could lead to a Palestinian Arab state one day.

Ms. Rice said she assured Mr. Olmert of American support, but she also called for more attention to be paid to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

"We were all sorry about the death of the Israeli university student and affirmed to him (Mr. Olmert) that we will continue to state clearly that the rocket attacks against Israel need to stop," Ms. Rice said. "I again reiterated our concerns for the humanitarian circumstances there and the need to find a more durable solution to the question of the passages," she added, referring to the inability of everyday Palestinian Arabs to leave the Gaza Strip.

Hamas overran Gaza in June, expelling forces loyal to the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. While Hamas controls Gaza, Mr. Abbas rules the West Bank. Hamas has done nothing to stop militants from using the tiny, densely populated territory to launch rocket attacks into Israel, and Israel responded with a near-total security seal that has prevented Gazans from leaving and has crippled cross-border commerce.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the deadly rocket attack on the college in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, which came a few hours after two Israeli airstrikes killed seven people in Gaza, including two senior commanders in the Hamas rocket operation.

The fatal attack on Sderot intensified calls in Israel for a large-scale ground offensive in Gaza aimed at clearing the border area of rocket squads, though previous incursions have halted such attacks only briefly.

So far, Mr. Olmert has ruled out such an invasion.

But during a visit to Sderot late yesterday, the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, vowed to "get those responsible" for the rocket attack. He dismissed arguments that Israel "cannot or will not (carry out) a wide-ranging operation in Gaza."

Ms. Rice, asked whether she told Mr. Olmert not to use disproportionate force in Gaza, dismissed the question.

"I think that's not a good way to address this issue," she said, then repeated her call for calm on both sides. "The issue is that the rocket attacks need to stop, there needs to be due concern for the humanitarian situation in Gaza, there needs to be a durable way to deal with crossing."

In the end, Ms. Rice said that the only long-term solution is for Israel and the Palestinian Arabs to negotiate a peace deal to end the cycle of violence, although chances of that happening anytime soon appear to be diminishing despite President Bush's goal of reaching agreement by the time he leaves office.

"The most important thing that can be done, of course, is to use the opportunity before the parties to have this vision of a Palestinian state become one that is concrete," Ms. Rice said. "That is what will ultimately give Palestinians and Israelis the confidence that they have a future of peace and security and not one of continuing conflict."

Ms. Rice said Mr. Olmert confirmed his commitment to the "roadmap" peace plan and she said that Lieutenant General William Fraser III, whom Mr. Bush appointed in January to monitor its progress, would travel to the region soon to discuss obligations of both the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs.

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