George Mitchell in Ramallah calls for "mechanism" to bring legal goods into Gaza

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.

12 thoughts on “George Mitchell in Ramallah calls for "mechanism" to bring legal goods into Gaza”

  1. Israel has the right to defend itself.
    Any country would if 15% of its area and population would be targeted by rockets for 8 years. The US equivalent is CA+TX.
    Israel withdrew from most of Gaza 8 years ago, and completely 3 years ago.
    Hamas has no reason to attack Israel.
    The Gaza residents are accountable. They voted Hamas in. They staff Hamas, with 1% enlistment!

  2. Gaza borders with Egypt and Israel.
    Therefore, Israel cannot put a siege on Gaza – even if it wanted so. It is simply impossible.
    It happens so that Egypt is even more firm than Israel about closing its border with Gaza. But this is Hamas fault alienating its Arab neighbor.
    Any country has the right to close its borders or allow selective passage. This is true for China. It is true for Switzerland. It is true for Israel.

  3. Pay attention to the figures “according to Palestinian figures” disclaimer.
    According to testimony by an italian doctor who volunteer in the Gaza hospital:”The number of deceased stands at no more than 500 to 600. Most of them are youths between the ages of 17 to 23 who were recruited to the ranks of Hamas, who sent them to the slaughter”
    These same report mentioned that the truth that will come out is likely to be similar to what occurred in Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin. “Then, there was first talk of 1,500 deaths. But then it turned out that there were only 54, 45 of which were armed men,”

  4. I wonder, “Omar”, if you didn’t mean to put your comment on another one of my posts…

    Yes, please do pay attention to the figures.

    The report by the Italian journalist has been picked up by all the Israeli government defenders and is being quoted all over, even by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
    You can re-read it for yourself here:
    But no one else gives this report any credence.

    The UN Humanitarian Coordinator John Holmes said as much in his briefing to the UN Security Council this week.

    I cite Palestinian figures. The figures I mention were given by Dr. Moawiya Hassanein, head of the ambulance services in Gaza, whose figures have been regarded until now as completely reliable and authoritative. There is no reason to doubt him now. The Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad cited the exact same figures in a briefing he gave to journalists in his office in Ramallah last week.
    The Palestinian figures are at least 1,300 killed and 5300 wounded.

    Interestingly, the figures mentioned — though not very clearly, to say the least — in the Israeli MFA document whose link is shown above states that: “According to an Israeli investigation, of the 1,100-1,200 reported casualties …” etc.
    What is meant here by “casualties”? Perhaps what is meant is deaths, no?

    And that is not all. A report in Haaretz that was published before the cease-fire said that “The head of coordination and liaison activities in the Gaza Strip, Colonel Moshe Levy, said yesterday that the IDF has the names of 900 dead Palestinians, of whom only 150 are civilians. Levy also said that there are 4,000 wounded Palestinians”. This report is published here:

    The IDF has THE NAMES of 900 dead Palestinians, it says, and this was before the final days of the military operation.
    So much for that report of a death toll of no more than 500-. “most of them youths …recruited by Hamas, who sent them to the slaughter” …

    Again, and this is particularly shameless propaganda: there is absolutely no proof whatsoever that most of the dead in Gaza were ” Hamas recruits”.

  5. Yes “Maurian”, carrying the name Omar does not deprive me from seeing the whole picture.
    But I wonder about your ability , and RESPONSIBILITY as a journalist that influences public opinion, to see it.

  6. Yes “Maurian”, carrying the name Omar does not deprive someone from seeing the whole picture.
    But I wonder about your ability , and RESPONSIBILITY as a journalist that influences public opinion, to see it.

  7. Wars in the Muslim world often cost far more casualties. 10,000s-Millions. From this perspective, 1500 or 600 are relatively mild, though unfortunate.
    Now, Hamas and the people of Gaza don’t come across as particularly sensitive to Human lives. Neither of Israelis who they target relentlessly and indiscriminately, nor of Muslims who Hamas declared as willing to sacrifice “as much as needed” to destroy Israel and kill Jews.
    Hamas has a win-win strategy: Destroy Israel and kill Jews indiscriminately (war crime), while using civilians as live shields (crime), and crying foul when there are casualties on its side.
    If people do care, they should criticize Hamas for its strategy, and the people of Gaza for voting it into power and supporting it thereafter.
    I’m surprised about the media and journalist irresponsibility and double standards. Eventually, it will haunt them, too, when their places they live in will treat them the same.

  8. There is a war going on out there! Gaza attacks Israel (for whatever stupid reason). Israel attacks back (as is the customary in our sad world). This is called defense.
    This war is fought in populated areas. No wonder there are civilian casualties. Particularly, given the smart tactics employed by Hamas who uses civilians as shields and when they are heart also cries foul.
    Hamas is committed to killing Jews and the destructions of Israel. Hamas declares that it would pay any price, including the lives of as many Muslims as needed.
    Sounds as a pretty strong commitment. No wonder there are casualties on the Gaza side. Though, it seems as a pretty poor performance compared to its declaration. I guess even extreme fundamentalists are not as they used to be in the old good days.

  9. Dear Marian Houk,
    What I didn’t see in your article is constructive suggestions!
    How about YOU, Marian, taking a pro-peace position.
    You should urge both sides to stop any hostilities first. Including rockets, killings, and verbal attacks!
    Then you should suggest the following points:
    1) Keep avoiding any hostilities. Including attacks, killings, rhetoric, propaganda and education. This should last for 10 years or so before the next step.
    2) Both side should verbally and formally denounce mutual hatred. Hamas should denounce killing Jews and attacks on Israel. Israel should announce it has nothing against Hamas.
    3) Again, wait for 10 years or so. We don’t ask them to love each other. Just stop hatred.
    4) Now, after a generation or so without hostilities and bad rhetoric, the parties can try to get to partnering on mutual projects, economy build up and etc.
    5) Formal peace may ensure as a by product.

  10. Dear Marian Houk,
    What I didn’t see in your article is constructive suggestions!
    How about YOU, Marian, taking a pro-peace position.
    First step would be to take a public stance against any hostilities of both parties. This would apply to both Hamas and Israel.
    Hamas would stop any hostile activities, including firing rockets and suicide massacres, as well as the inflammatory rhetoric. Israel would stop targeting militants and facilities. By product there would be no by stander heart either. After a few years the sides will find out that actually they may have something in common, and would be willing to cooperate for a better future. Maybe even peace treaties and possibly open borders.
    I bet you don’t have the guts to take such a public position. I wonder why. Is it because it doesn’t make sensational news, or because you fear Hamas or its supporters as they do NOT tolerate independent opinions and dissent.
    I’ll be glad to be surprised.

  11. Marian Houk, how about you and your fellow journalist take a bold stance for true peace?
    The first step is that you denounce any hostility, regardless who is the preparetor.
    You SHOULD demand stop of hostilities from both Israel and the Gaza ppl (which include Hamas). Hostilities obviously include rockets firing and suicide massacres, but also targeted killings and bombing facilities. This extends to propaganda and inflammatory rhetoric as they pretty fast slip into physical attacks.
    After a few years of no-violence, but no love either, we may have a foundation to build upon a better future.

  12. I bet you won’t make a public statement for unconditional stop of hostilities on all parties.
    Bashing Israel is so much more popular.
    Most of the reporters and media don’t have the spine to communicate an message that would piss off Hamas.
    After all Hamas doesn’t tolerate dissent and independent opinion.
    Please surprise me!

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