Abbas to ask Clinton for help on settlement freeze

Palestinian leaders were urging United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday to push Israel to freeze construction in West Bank settlements and open blockaded Gaza Strip borders.

Clinton arrived in the West Bank under heavy security on Wednesday, meeting first with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and then with President Mahmoud Abbas.

She repeated that the US was committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state and she praised Fayyad’s plan for rebuilding Gaza.

Fayyad’s government outlined the plan on Monday at an international donors’ conference for the territory, which was heavily damaged in a recent Israeli military offensive.

Donors raised $5,2-billion for Gaza and Fayyad’s government, with the US pledging $900-million.

Palestinian leaders are watching closely for signs of change in US policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians were disappointed with the previous US administration’s failure to take Israel to task for accelerated settlement construction in 2008, when the two sides were holding US-backed peace talks.

The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Settlement expansion in the Palestinian-claimed areas undercuts Abbas’s standing at home and makes it increasingly difficult to establish an independent Palestinian state.

Ordinary Palestinians in Ramallah seemed largely indifferent to the Clinton visit. Many Palestinians believe the US has a strong pro-Israel bias and can’t be a fair broker in the Mideast conflict.

“America is always for Israel,” said Ayman al-Umari (32), the manager of a shop selling household appliances.
“If Clinton wants to come, we’ll welcome her. If [President Barack] Obama wants to come, we’ll welcome him, but it doesn’t help.”

Clinton met briefly with young Palestinians studying English, and announced a US initiative to help poorer Palestinian students attend four-year Palestinian universities and give grants to other Palestinians to attend US schools.

“For a Palestinian state to be prosperous, accountable to its people and be able to live up to its obligations in the international community, it has to have more people who can do the job in the 21st century,” she said.

In Jerusalem on Tuesday, Clinton said that working toward the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a peace agreement with Israel “seems inescapable”.

But Abbas has little to show for a year of peace talks with Israel’s outgoing government, and Israel’s prime minister-designate, hardline leader Benjamin Netanyahu, does not support the establishment of a Palestinian state. Clinton met with Netanyahu, as well as Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak, the outgoing foreign and defence ministers, on Tuesday.

Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian leader is seeking a tougher US stance toward Israel. “The main point is that the Israeli government needs to accept the two-state solution and ... stop settlement expansion,” Erekat said.

He said Abbas would specifically raise Israeli construction plans in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their future capital.

Settlement construction is considered illegal under international law.

The future of Hamas-ruled Gaza is also on the agenda. Abbas lost control of Gaza in June 2007, when his rival, the Islamic militant Hamas, seized control by force. Israel and Egypt closed Gaza’s borders in response, a policy tacitly supported by the international community, which shuns Hamas as a terrorist group.

However, the blockade has come under renewed scrutiny following Israel’s three-week military offensive against Hamas, which ended in an informal ceasefire on January 18. About 15 000 homes were destroyed or damaged in the war, meant to halt Palestinian rocket fire on southern Israel, and international aid officials say Gaza’s borders need to reopen to make reconstruction possible.

“We want the US to help us open the passages to get material for reconstruction into Gaza,” Erekat said.

In her meeting with Barak on Tuesday, Clinton urged easing the flow of goods into Gaza to alleviate the hardships of ordinary Gazans, Israeli officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

Currently, Israel allows several dozen truckloads of aid to get into Gaza every day, but bars the entry of concrete, pipes and other materials that would be crucial for reconstruction. Israel argues that such shipments could be seized by Hamas and used for building bunkers or rockets.

The Gaza offensive did not end the rocket fire, and on Wednesday, Israeli aircraft struck three tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border that militants are suspected of using to smuggle in weapons.

In Jerusalem on Tuesday, Clinton demanded that Hamas cease its rocket attacks, saying Israel should not “be expected to sit idly by and allow rockets [to] assault its people and its territory”.

Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum said on Wednesday that Clinton’s remarks throughout her Mideast trip have been “totally biased in favour of the Zionist occupation and do not reflect any change in American foreign policy”.

Separately, Clinton also announced on Tuesday that the US would dispatch two envoys to Syria in an effort to warm frosty relations—part of a bigger set of diplomatic maneuvers the Obama administration is juggling as it attempts to steer a new course toward a broad Middle East peace.—Sapa-AP

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