Abbas calls for halt to Israeli 'aggression'

The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, on Tuesday called on Israel to stop its “aggression” to create the right climate for negotiations as the United States sought to salvage a stalled peace effort.

Abbas said “peace and negotiations are our strategic choice” but fell short of announcing a resumption of peace talks after Israel launched attacks against Hamas in Gaza.

He made his comments in a joint press conference with the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who arrived in the region during a lull in the deadliest fighting between Israelis and Palestinians for years. Rice clung to US hopes that a Middle East peace settlement could still be reached by the end of the year despite the grim backdrop.

“I know that there is great will to try and get to a solution by the end of the year,” she said. “What we are trying to achieve is not easy ...
but I do believe it can be done. We need very much for everybody to be focused on peace.”

Rice criticised Hamas for wanting to “destroy the peace process” by launching rockets at Israeli civilians, and said they should be called to account. As for Israeli military actions, Rice repeated that Israel had a right to defend itself but that there “be a strong effort to spare innocent life”.

Over 100 Palestinians were killed in the fighting of the past week and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, warned on Monday that more fighting was imminent.

Israel launched heavy attacks to stop rocket attacks by Hamas militants on southern Israeli towns, but the assault prompted Abbas to suspend negotiations.

Though Israeli troops and tanks pulled out of Gaza before dawn on Monday, a senior Israeli official said the withdrawal was only a two-day interval in combat during Rice’s visit. Israeli troops would remain close to the Gaza border.

The withdrawal ended five days of intense combat. At least 106 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed. The fighting was criticised by many in the international community, including the United Nations. Israel’s leading human rights group, B’Tselem, which has researchers on the ground in Gaza, said at least half the Palestinian dead “did not take part in the hostilities”.

On Monday Olmert said one of his goals was to “weaken” Hamas. However, despite the heavy loss of life among both its militants and civilians, the Islamist movement claimed a victory. Militants continued firing rockets from Gaza into Israel, many towards the nearby town of Sderot but also some of longer range towards the larger city of Ashkelon, about 17km to the north.

In the Gazan town of Jabalia on Monday, crowds poured on to the streets. Funeral tents were set up outside houses as workmen began to repair electricity cables and rebuild walls. More families emerged with stories of civilian casualties amid the combat. Louise Arbour, the UN human rights commissioner, called on Israel to carry out an impartial investigation into the Palestinian deaths.

More conflict appears inevitable. “We are in the midst of a combat action,” Olmert was quoted as telling a parliamentary committee. “What happened in recent days was not a one-time event ... The objective is reducing the rocket fire and weakening Hamas.”

Hamas is just as defiant. The group won Palestinian elections two years ago and went on to seize full control of Gaza last summer after a near civil war with the rival Fatah faction, led by Abbas, which now controls the West Bank. “Invading one inch of the Gaza Strip means the battle and confrontation will continue and will expand even further than it has reached,” said Mahmoud Zahar, the most senior Hamas figure in Gaza. Palestinian rockets have killed 13 people in Israel since mid-2004, the most recent a civilian in Sderot last Wednesday.

On the main street in the Abed Rabbo district of Jabalia, close to the Israeli border, the damage was severe. Tank tracks had torn up the pavement and there were gaping holes in several houses. Twisted metal gates lay where they had been blasted off by soldiers who raided most of the homes.

One house targeted, on the corner of the main al-Quds Street, was home to the Abu Safi family. One of the younger sons, Hassan (21) had been married seven days earlier. He was standing on the second floor balcony to make a cellphone call at around 8am on Saturday when he was shot dead with a single bullet to the head.

“We didn’t see the soldiers until they had shot him,” said one of his brothers, Yahya (26). The family insist neither he nor others in the house were fighters and there were none of the insignia that usually marks a militant’s funeral.

Half an hour after the shooting Israeli soldiers forced their way into the building and entered the apartment. “They went in and saw his blood and they walked through it,” said Mohammad Abu Safi (32) the oldest brother. “That was very hard for us.”

The soldiers searched the flat and the family, finding nothing. “They asked: Are you Hamas? I said, Of course not. We’re businessmen.” Abu Safi showed his identity card and his Palestinian Chamber of Commerce card. The soldiers confiscated their cellphones and, the family say, took several hundred shekels, too. “They never apologised for killing my brother,” he said. “At the end, one patted my father on the back and said: ‘God bless him.’” - Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008

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