Talk of Change Persists, but So Does Mideast Violence

As Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas inch toward a U.S.-sponsored peace conference, persistent violence on the ground has kept Israeli-Palestinian tensions high.

Ratcheting up its response to cross-border rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, Israel last week declared Gaza “hostile territory” — a designation allowing for sweeping economic sanctions. Israel also conducted a major counter-terrorist raid in the West Bank.

The developments coincided with a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice aimed at bridging differences between Israeli and Palestinian leaders ahead of a planned November peace parley.

Rice was insistent that Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in June and the subsequent installment of the Fatah-led Palestinian emergency government offered an opportunity for Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement — one that President Bush would exploit in his final months in office.

“The president and I are absolutely devoted to working as hard as we can” for the advancement of a future Palestinian state, she told reporters Thursday.

Rice said the conference — whose exact date, venue and participant roster have yet to be set — will be substantive and that Olmert and Abbas already were discussing “core issues.”

What those are remained unclear.

Abbas has complained of an Israeli reluctance to commit to major diplomatic concessions on “final-status issues” like borders, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Olmert prefers to defer final-status talks until Israel has confidence that Abbas’ government is willing and able to deliver on security issues, which is why Olmert instead is pushing for a joint declaration of principles.

Jerusalem officials have voiced misgivings about dealing with Abbas, whose mandate is effectively limited to the West Bank.

But neither has Olmert completely evaded accommodation with Abbas. After Rice’s departure Thursday, the Israeli prime minister faced off with senior members of his Kadima Party who fear he may be putting together a secret peace deal in his almost weekly tete-a-tetes with Abbas.

Such suspicions were stoked last week when Vice Premier Haim Ramon, Olmert’s top deputy and confidant, revealed in a letter to a Jerusalem councilman that there is a government proposal to

cede some control over the Temple Mount to Palestinians under a future accord, though Israel would retain the Western Wall and Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

In an address at Kadima headquarters, Olmert provided few details of any such plans but made clear he seeks the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough.

“I know the dominant opinion in some circles is that we need to wait, that we must not hasten or nurture an atmosphere that will lead to serious negotiations,” Olmert said. This kind of thinking, he said, “seeks to avoid seizing opportunities and looking for a real chance to break the ice between us and the Palestinians. I do not share this view.”

On security matters, however, Israel appears to be in no mood for risk taking. Israeli forces raided the West Bank city of Nablus last week in what military sources described as a mission to thwart a suicide bombing planned by Hamas in a bid to scuttle the upcoming peace conference.

An Israeli paratrooper was killed in the five-day operation, which concluded Friday with the capture of 49 Palestinians, including a Hamas commander.

There was further drama regarding Hamas-controlled Gaza. After weeks in which the Islamist group either ignored or abetted cross-border Palestinian rocket fire against Israeli civilians living near the Gaza Strip, Olmert’s security cabinet last Wednesday designated Gaza a “hostile territory” and began consultations on how to prevent the import and export of non-vital goods without deepening the impoverished territory’s humanitarian problems.

“Additional sanctions will be placed on the Hamas regime in order to restrict the passage of various goods to the Gaza Strip and reduce the supply of fuel and electricity,” a Cabinet communique said. “Restrictions will also be placed on the movement of people to and from the Gaza Strip.”

Israel also pledged to press its low-intensity military campaign. A raid on central Gaza early Thursday killed three Palestinians — all of them noncombatants, according to witnesses. Security sources said the operation in Bureij village targeted a local Hamas leader and terrorist infrastructure.

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i told Israel Radio the purpose of the new sanctions policy is “to apply pressure on the Palestinian populace and bring about the removal of the Hamas regime.”

Most Israeli commentators backed the sanctions decision, arguing that it is unreasonable for Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians to continue receiving fuel, electricity and commercial cargo from Israel while the radicals in their midst wage unabated jihad against the Jewish state.

But there have been misgivings, too.

Though Israel quit Gaza in 2005, it continued to control the territory’s border crossings, coast and airspace — something the Palestinians, Arab League and some Western powers consider ongoing “occupation.”

The United Nations and European Union urged Israel to reconsider its sanctions decision. Rice was less critical, noting that the United States considers Hamas a terrorist group and a “hostile entity.” Yet she made clear the Bush administration “would not abandon the innocent Palestinians” to a humanitarian crisis.

Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction, described the sanctions as a “declaration of war.”

But in an early sign of their potential efficacy, Ismail Haniyeh, the deposed Palestinian Authority prime minister who heads the Hamas administration in Gaza, convened the Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committees in a bid to persuade them to hold their rocket fire against Israel.

The talks yielded no immediate success. Shortly after the meetings’ conclusion, Palestinian rocket crews fired a new round of missiles out of Gaza and into Israel. There were no reports of damage or casualties.

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