George Mitchell, the new U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, said after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah today that he wanted to convey the deep concern in the U.S. about the loss of Palestinian life.
Mitchell arrived in the region just days after the end of the active phase of a three-week Israeli military offensive in Gaza in which some 1,300 Palestinians died and about 5,300 were wounded, according to Palestinian figures.
There was a palpable but non-verbal reaction in the room in the Muqata’a, or Palestinian Presidential compound, where Mitchell was making remarks to the press.
Mitchell arrived in the region just days after the inauguration of new U.S. President Barak Obama, whose first overseas telephone call on his first full day in office was to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas did not join Mitchell for this statement to the press.
During the first week of the Israeli military operation against Gaza, Palestinian Authority President Abbas called off direct negotiations with Israel under the process that began in Annapolis at the end of November 2007. That process was to lead to the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008 — or at the very latest, by the end of George W. Bush’s term in office on 20 January this year. Many Palestinian groups, including Hamas, have called throughout 2008 for an end to the negotiations in protest of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, and its violence against Palestinians both in the West Bank and in Gaza.
Mitchell also stated Thursday that the U.S. was also concerned about the humanitarian needs in Gaza, and added that “To be successful in preventing illegal weapons smuggling into Gaza there must be a mechanism to allow the import of legal goods — and that should be with the participation of the Palestinian Authority”.
There are probably too many mechanisms in place already, however — almost all of them under the control of the Israeli military — which do not appear to be working very well.
And, there is also the problem of allowing exports from Gaza, which have been banned for a year-and-a-half. The ban on Gaza’s flowers, strawberries, and finished goods has plunged the Gazan economy into a deep crisis, even before Israel’s recent military operation damaged a significant part of Gaza’s small-industry infrastructure.
Mitchell’s statement did not sound like a call for just throwing open the borders — as most Palestinians (and even many Europeans) would want.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has said several times that Israel would not just withdraw and “throw the keys over the border”, and let the Palestinians do whatever they want. Mostly she has been talking about the West Bank, but she has recently said this in regard to Gaza, as well.
The Agence France Press reported that Israel’s Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said again that Israel would not open the borders as long as rocket, mortar or missile fire from Gaza continued — and acknowledged that this would mean a delay in any reconstruction efforts. ” ‘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’.”
AFP added that Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Mitchell today that the opening of the border crossings into Gaza depended on the release of an Israeli soldier who was seized in a cross-border raid from Gaza in June 2006, and who is still believed to be held captive somewhere inside the badly-battered Gaza Strip. AFP reported that a senior Israeli official quoted Olmert as telling Mitchell that “A permanent opening of the crossings will be linked to solving the issue of Gilad Shalit”. This report can be read in full here.
AFP reported that Mitchell said, after his meeting with Olmert, that “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”.
The 2005 agreement was brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It put European Union observers at the Palestinian crossing from Gaza into Egypt at Rafah — but real time images were monitored by the Israeli military at Kerem Shalom (near where Shalit was captured). The Israeli military monitors had final say on any passage through Rafah.
European Union observers left their positions at Rafah after Hamas routed Fatah security forces in Gaza in June 2007, and the crossing has been closed almost all the time since then.
Mitchell said in Ramallah today, too, that it was important to consolidate a sustainable and durable cease-fire. “Lasting peace is our objective”, he said, adding that the U.S. has a lasting commitment to “two states living side by side in peace and security”.
It was announced many times that Mitchell would not be taking any questions from the press. A U.S. official did not answer when asked if the decision to take no questions was from the American side, or from the Palestinian side.
Mitchell’s brief in the region is to “listen”.
Mitchell arrived in Israel from Cairo on Wednesday, and held talks in Tel Aviv on Wednesday and on Thursday morning. He also held talks in Jerusalem on Thursday, before going to Ramallah to meet Abbas. The Israeli officials Mitchell met include Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Ashkenazi, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and State President Shimon Peres.
Mitchell will apparently have no contact with Hamas.
Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat, who greeted Mitchell upon his arrival in the courtyard of the Muqata’a, made a brief statement to the press — and then answered one question in Arabic and one in English.
Erekat said that “It is a vital American interest to end the occupation”. He added that “We hope President Obama will shift American policy”. Erekat said that “what’s needed is to transfer the vision into two states … by ending the Israeli occupation that began in 1967″.
Then Erekat left.
The journalists were then locked into the room where the press statements had been made — and stayed locked up for 40 minutes. It was explained that this was a decision of Palestinian security, because President Abbas wanted to leave the compound. Palestinian security in Ramallah is often very heavy handed, but this had never happened before.
Bring back Rice!”, one journalist chanted, jokingly.
The new U.S. Secretary of State, Hilary Rodham Clinton, said earlier this week in Washington that the new Administration “wanted to reengage vigorously from the very beginning in the Middle East”. She said that Mitchell would be carrying the message that “we’re going to be working on a series of short-term objectives with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but that we remain committed to the long-term objective of a comprehensive peace that provides security in the context of a two-state solution for the Palestinians”.
Clinton added that “we want to give him [Mitchell] the opportunity to listen and bring back his impressions and information. And we are at this moment focused only on the Israel-Palestinian track … We have, as I said, some short-term objectives such as a durable ceasefire, which as you know has receded somewhat today because of the offensive action against the IDF along the border. But of course, we’re concerned about the humanitarian suffering. We’re concerned any time innocent civilians, Palestinian or Israeli, are attacked”.
A senior Hamas official, meanwhile, separately gave from Gaza the same message as Sa’eb Erekat gave from Ramallah. In remarks to Al-Jazeera Thursday, Ismail Haniyeh appealed to U.S. President Barack Obama to change American policies in the Middle East. News agencies said that “it was not clear where the interview was taped as Haniyeh has been in hiding, fearing Israel will kill him”.
Israeli officials have suggested that Hamas leaders are hiding also because the public rage at the death and destruction inflicted on Gaza — because of Hamas, Israel says — during the three-week Israeli military offensive.
Some Palestinian officials in Ramallah have echoed the same thought.
But many Palestinians in the West Bank say they believe that Israel would have attacked Gaza anyway, even if Hamas had stopped rocket, mortar and missile fire from Gaza onto surrounding Israeli land.
Meanwhile, top Hamas officials, including Haniyeh in Gaza and Khalid Meshaal in Damascus, have now said that they do not require emergency aid or reconstruction assistance to pass through their hands.
While Hamas continues to reject any linkage between freeing Gilad Shalit and the opening of the border crossings into Gaza, they do say they are willing to engage in a long-term cease-fire with Israel if the border crossings are opened.
Shalit’s liberation, they maintain, depends on the freeing from Israeli jails of a certain number of Palestinians whose names are on a list they have submitted to negotiators. Israel is currently holding some 11,000 Palestinian prisoners or detainees.