Israel suspends Gaza truce negotiator

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has suspended his pointman for the Gaza truce talks in Egypt after he launched a scathing tirade against the outgoing premier last week.

”The prime minister decided to suspend Amos Gilad from his functions as negotiator with Egypt as he no longer enjoys his confidence,” a senior government official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The move came several days after Gilad, a senior Defence Ministry official who has shuttled between Egypt and Israel for weeks, blasted Olmert for changing his position in talks to forge a lasting Gaza truce with Hamas.

Olmert abruptly announced last week that Israel would not reopen Gaza’s long-blockaded borders — the main Israeli concession in any truce — until captured Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit were freed.

”Gilad had a sensitive role as he carried negotiations with Egypt on a truce and the liberation of Gilad Shalit, but unfortunately his behaviour, in particular an interview given last week to the daily Maariv, lost him the confidence of his superiors,” the official said.

Officials in Olmert’s office said a longtime adviser to the prime minister, Shalom Turgeman, would replace Gilad on the truce talks.

Defence officials said veteran negotiator Ofer Dekel, who brokered a recent prisoner swap deal with Lebanese militants, would handle efforts to free Schalit, snatched by Hamas-affiliated militants during a 2006 raid into Israel. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

Gilad lashed out at Olmert in remarks published in the Maariv tabloid newspaper last Wednesday.

”Until now the prime minister hasn’t involved himself at all. Suddenly, the order of things has been changed. Suddenly, first we have to get Gilad [Shalit]. I don’t understand that. Where does that lead, to insult the Egyptians? To make them want to drop the whole thing? What do we stand to gain from that?”

Gilad warned that the new Israeli position risked alienating Egypt, which was the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979.

”I don’t understand what it is that they’re trying to do,” Maariv quoted Gilad as telling a close associate. ”To insult the Egyptians? We’ve already insulted them. It’s madness. It’s simply madness. Egypt has remained almost our last ally here.”

A Defence Ministry spokesperson told AFP: ”The prime minister is within his rights to rid himself of Amos Gilad’s services, but it is the state of Israel that is lesser for it.

”Gilad will continue to maintain ties with officials abroad, including in Egypt, for the Defence Ministry,” she added.

There was no immediate reaction from Gilad or Egypt, which has been mediating the talks.

Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum said Israel ”never intended to reach any agreement or closure on a truce or a prisoner exchange”.

Olmert, who is the focus of corruption allegations, will step down after a new government is formed. The negotiations could get tougher if they’re not wrapped up by the time Benjamin Netanyahu takes power within the next few weeks.

Hamas is desperate to reopen the borders to start repairing the vast destruction from the Israeli onslaught. But it objects to linking the prisoner release to the truce negotiations.

Israel launched its Gaza offensive following years of Palestinian rocket attacks on its south. The sides declared separate ceasefires January 18, but sporadic violence has persisted.

Two rockets struck Israel on Monday, but no injuries or damage was reported.

Israel and Egypt sealed their borders with Gaza after Hamas seized control of the territory nearly two years ago, trouncing forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah movement, who now controls only the West Bank. Israel for the most part has allowed only limited humanitarian supplies to enter since.

The fate of Gaza’s borders is key not only to the truce deal between Israel and Hamas, but also to any future power-sharing agreement between Hamas and Fatah.

Efforts to form a unity government have failed in the past. However, after Israel’s Gaza offensive, both sides have stronger motives to try to make it work.

Gaza will remain internationally isolated and Hamas will remain sidelined unless it allows Abbas a foothold there. Abbas has overstayed his term as president, which ended in January, and needs a partnership with Hamas to shore up his dwindling political legitimacy.

Still, a news conference at the Hamas-run Interior Ministry in Gaza on Monday did not bode well for reconciliation talks scheduled to begin in Egypt later this week.

Hamas officials played videotapes of what they said were Fatah loyalists confessing to relaying information about weapons warehouses, smuggling tunnels and the homes of Gaza political leaders to Abbas’ West Bank government.

One of the loyalists said he thought the information was later transmitted to the Israeli military and used to locate targets hit during the war. But he provided no evidence to back that claim.

In other Gaza news on Monday, a European Parliament delegation arrived in the territory to assess humanitarian needs and how Europe can help to rebuild Gaza.

”Our objective is to contribute to get the peace process back on track,” Hans-Gert Pottering, president of the European Parliament, told reporters after visiting a hospital and United Nations headquarters attacked by Israeli tanks during the war.

”If we don’t have a peaceful solution in the Mideast, relations between Europe and the Arab and Muslim countries will deteriorate,” he said.– Sapa-AFP

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