Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Rice Mission Meets Resistance From Abbas


UNITED NATIONS — With Arab outrage growing at Israel's military operations in Gaza — which are increasingly being likened in the Muslim and Arab press to the Holocaust — Secretary of State Rice is having trouble getting a commitment from President Abbas to renew peace talks with Prime Minister Olmert. Mr. Abbas yesterday conditioned the renewal of talks on an end to Gaza "aggression" — Israel's air and artillery shelling and land incursions that have killed more than 100 Palestinian Arabs, most of them combatants, and have led newscasts across the Arab world. Israeli commando units re-entered Gaza last night, killing a military leader of the Islamic Jihad in a fierce battle that also left dead a 2-month-old baby. The Israeli military said its two-day "hot winter" ground operation in Gaza, which ended Monday night, damaged Hamas more than its leaders would admit. But Israeli leaders stopped short of promising Israelis an immediate end to Arab rocket attacks from Gaza, which this week routinely hit the major Israeli city of Ashkelon, as well as Sderot and other towns that have been under attack for years.

President Bush expressed optimism about the prospect of a peace agreement and the creation of a peaceful and democratic Palestinian Arab state before the end of his term. "This is a process that, you know, always has two steps forward and one step back," Mr. Bush, who hosted Jordan's King Abdullah at the White House, told reporters yesterday. "We just got to make sure that it's only one step back." Even before the recent military escalation, Palestinian Arabs and their supporters have routinely highlighted Gaza's daily hardships, often relying on data supplied by the United Nations. While saying it does not intend to make life easy for those who chose Hamas, Israel has denied that life in Gaza amounts to a humanitarian crisis. In a press release distributed to reporters yesterday, the Gaza-based U.N. Relief and Works Agency claimed that 30 out of 87 ambulances operated by the ministry of health and the Red Crescent in Gaza have been "unable to function" because of "fuel shortages," and that all of the strip's 140 water wells ran out of operating fuel, "leaving all Gazans with intermittent water supplies at best."

As it does routinely, and even in the midst of the military escalation, Israel delivered the weekly ration of 75,000 liters of gasoline to Gaza on Sunday, countered the military coordinator at Gaza's Erez Crossing, Colonel Nir Press. Separately, Israel delivered 10,000 liters of gasoline for UNRWA's own needs, he said, speaking between meetings with U.N. officials yesterday. "It may be worthwhile to check if Hamas is diverting fuel for uses other than running ambulances and operating water wells," Colonel Press told The New York Sun.

First made by Mr. Abbas last week and repeated by Iranian officials, the allusion to a Holocaust was reiterated yesterday during a rally in the Israeli Arab town of Um el-Fahem. "Some are planning a new Holocaust in Gaza," said the Israeli-Arab leader Shauki Hatib, according to Y-net. The Anti-Defamation League called the comparison between Israel and the Nazis, made in cartoons across the Middle East, anti-Semitic.

The Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council held a moment of silence yesterday for "martyrs in Gaza," as requested by Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, according to the Associated Press.

Because of such international pressures, "Abu Mazen now has to show solidarity" with the Gazans, said a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, Daniel Ayalon, referring to Mr. Abbas's suspensions of peace talks with Mr. Olmert. But like many in Israel, Mr. Ayalon said he believes Mr. Abbas has very little choice and predicts the Palestine Liberation Organization leader will return soon to the negotiating table.

"Even though I do not expect much progress — at best, Abbas can deliver only a half of the Palestinian people — I support negotiations as long as he remains committed to renunciation of terror and to building the capacity to combat terrorists," Mr. Ayalon said in a phone interview. The negotiations with Mr. Abbas, he added, "symbolize" the need for the region's "moderate forces to unite and stop the crazy extremists."

Mr. Ayalon added that Israel should agree to a cease-fire with Hamas only if an end to weapons smuggling into Gaza from Egypt is assured. "It is no longer a trickle of weapons, it is an avalanche," he said, and without ending it a cease-fire would only allow Hamas to "lick its wounds and rearm," waiting for convenient time to attack again.

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