US Mideast envoy demands opening of Gaza borders

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell has met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as violence in the Gaza Strip escalates once more. Mitchell, making his maiden tour of the region, has said it is vital that the Gaza ceasefire be consolidated.


AFP - US envoy George Mitchell met with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Thursday as spiralling Gaza violence threatened to shatter ceasefires that ended a war in the Hamas-run enclave.

Mitchell arrived in the occupied West Bank's political capital of Ramallah shortly after 1100 GMT a day after holding talks with senior Israeli leaders in Jerusalem.

He went immediately into talks with the 75-year-old former US senator, who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland in 1998.

Mitchell, making his maiden tour of the region, has said it is vital that the Gaza ceasefire be consolidated.

The former senator was appointed Middle East envoy by US President Barack Obama, tasked with vigorously rescucitating the lifeless Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Abbas has angrily hit out at the Jewish state in the wake of its deadliest ever war in Gaza that ended with Israel and the enclave's Hamas rulers declaring mutual ceasefires on January 18.

"Today we are convinced more than ever, especially after the aggression against Gaza, that Israel does not want peace and we are going to say so to all those who come to see us," Abbas said late Tuesday.

In Gaza, violence kept spiralling on Thursday with 18 Palestinians, including 11 schoolchildren and a pregnant woman, wounded in an Israeli air strike that targetted a Hamas policeman in the southern town of Khan Yunis, medics said. The Hamas man was also wounded in the attack.

Israeli warplanes bombed smuggling tunnels on Gaza's border with Egypt and militants in the coastal strip fired two rockets into the Jewish state.

The attacks did not injure anyone but further stoked tensions that have been rising since Tuesday when an Israeli soldier was killed in a militant bombing after 10 days of calm that followed a 22-day war.

Israeli officials, in the midst of campaigning for February 10 legislative polls, vowed that they would hit back hard at any militant strike and warned Gaza's borders would remain closed if attacks continued.

"It is clear that we will react, but we need patience and we have no intentions of showing our plans to the enemy," Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai told army radio.

Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel would not open Gaza's border crossings and allow construction materials to enter the enclave to begin rebuilding efforts if rocketing continued.

"To start such works, you need cement, pipes, all sorts of construction materials. If Hamas leaders want to leave this area in the state that it's in right now, they will have to answer to the residents."

Israel launched an offensive on Hamas on December 27 in response to rocket fire. More than 1,300 people died and large swathes of the impoverished territory were left in ruins.

On the Israeli side three civilians and 10 soldiers were killed.

Speaking after his meeting with Olmert on Wednesday, Mitchell said it was critical to consolidate the Gaza ceasefire.

"The prime minister and I discussed the critical importance to consolidate the ceasefire, including a cessation of hostilities, an end to smuggling and re-opening of the crossings based on 2005 agreements," Mitchell told reporters.

He was referring to agreements under which Gaza's Rafah crossing with Egypt, the sole border that bypasses Israel, was to be operated by Egyptian and Palestinian Authority forces, along with European Union observers and Israeli monitoring via live cameras.

Olmert, however, said Israel would open Gaza's borders -- which it has kept sealed to all but essential humanitarian goods since the Islamists seized power there in June 2007 -- only if militants released a soldier they snatched in June 2006.

"A permanent opening of the crossings will be linked to solving the issue of Gilad Shalit," a senior Israeli official quoted Olmert as telling the envoy.

He also said that forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, booted out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007, need to return to the coastal strip.

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