Israel piles pressure on Palestinian leader

Israel was piling pressure on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to put a halt to rocket attacks by militant groups in the Gaza Strip ahead of a summit on Monday between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and United States President George Bush in Texas.

A deadly flare-up of violence over the weekend, which saw three Palestinian youths shot dead by Israeli troops, brought tensions between the two sides to their highest point since a summit more than two months ago when both Sharon and Abbas called for an end to hostilities.

Palestinian militants responded to the death of the three youths by lobbing more than 70 rockets and mortars at Jewish settlements and Israeli troop positions in Gaza.

While no one was injured by the barrage, the Israeli government is furious that Abbas and his security services appeared to have not lifted a hand to stop the attacks.

Sharon was likely to use his meeting with Bush to argue that Abbas was failing to honour commitments to rein in the militants, a point that his Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, made in person to the Palestinian leader in a late-night phone call.

“This can’t continue,” Mofaz was quoted as telling Abbas. “You aren’t doing what needs to be done, and Israel won’t accept this. If you don’t act quickly, who knows how badly this will deteriorate?”

Sharon described the firing as “a flagrant violation of the understandings” reached with Abbas at their summit in February, with an aide to the Israeli leader quoting him as saying that “it will be a central issue to be raised at my talks with President Bush”.

The summit at Bush’s Texas’s ranch, an invitation that underlines the close alliance between the US and Israeli leaders, is designed to highlight Washington’s support for the upcoming pull-out of troops and settlers from Gaza.

Bush’s support for Sharon’s so-called disengagement plan is seen as a vital counter-balance to domestic opposition from many of the Israeli leader’s one-time allies.

The US president recently rebuked the Israeli government over its plans to expand the major West Bank settlement bloc of Maaleh Adumim, in contravention of the US-backed peace plan for the Middle East known as the road map.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia called on Bush to use his meeting with Sharon to pressure him to stop expanding settlements and construction of a separation barrier in the West Bank.

“We are appealing to President Bush to insist during his meeting with Sharon on the necessity of putting an end to Israeli violations [of the road map], in particular the expansion of the settlements, the attempts to annex [east] Jerusalem and to build the wall,” Qureia told reporters after meeting the European Union’s envoy for the region, Marc Otte.

However, commentators do not believe that the summit in Texas would dwell for long on the controversy, and that the rocket-firing had played into the hands of Sharon.

“How fortunate it is that there are Palestinians when you need them, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thought to himself on his way to Washington,” said an editorial in Monday’s Maariv daily.

“Abu Mazen’s [Abbas’s] failure and the increasing tension in the territories became the centre of attention at once, providing Sharon with the merchandise he loves so much: instead of talking and apologising for Israel’s failures, for the expansion of settlements in Maaleh Adumim, now he is going to be able to spend a great deal of time talking about the Palestinians’ failures.”—Sapa-AFP

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