Abbas' Mystery Meeting – to be with Hamas?

The hints have been coming for two days. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is going to have an important meeting “outside the homeland” today, Sunday 3 January.

Nabil Abu Rudeina dropped hints (slighly misleading) on Thursday, Yasser Abed Rabbo said it on Saturday… Now, the hints are leading in the direction of an Abbas-Hamas direct meeting.

It would be the first in a very long time, the first since the June 2007 “coup” in which Hamas routed Fatah/Palestinian Security Forces in Gaza. Abu Mazen’s position has hardly changed: Hamas must return to the status quo ante — that is, the Palestinian Authority must be restored in Gaza.

Abu Mazen was absent from Fatah’s 45th-anniversary musical gala at Ramallah’s Cultural Palace on Saturday evening, because he was travelling.

Now, Reuters is reporting, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (based in Damascus in recent years) is in Saudi Arabia for meetings in “in a possible bid to narrow the rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, an official source said … ‘He arrived today. The visit is aimed at helping Palestinian reconciliation’, a senior foreign ministry official said”.

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Israel says it will press offensive in Gaza until all goals reached

Pressure — from some quarters, at least — is rising to halt the IDF offensive in Gaza, but the Israeli Cabinet decided to day to press on with its attacks on targets in Gaza until all goals are reached.

This is despite — or because of — the dramatically-expanded range, over the past few days, of rocket and missile attacks coming from Gaza onto Israel, which have now reached Ashdod, a major port on Israel’s coast 23 miles north of Gaza, and Beersheva, 28 miles east in the Negev desert. Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility is not far from Beersheva.

Israeli warplanes and naval ships continued attacks, but the military allowed some 22 Gazans wounded in those attacks to enter Israel through the otherwise-closed Erez border crossing for medical treatment in Israel. Israel also made arrangements to allow some humanitarian goods to enter Gaza.

On the other hand, the Israeli government is not interested in a cease-fire, at least not yet. And the cabinet authorized the call-up of 2,500 more army reservists, in addition to the 6,500 already summoned, in preparation for a possible ground invasion. That now makes 9,000 reservists who have been told to report to a garrison on the Gaza border — and military experts in Israel have said that 10,000 reservists would be needed, if a decision is made to go in by land.

Haaretz is reporting that Prime Minister Olmert told his cabinet that “We did not begin the Gaza operation in order to finish it with rocket fire continuing like it did before” Olmert said.

The Jerusalem Post reported that 65 percent of its readers polled want a ground operation to go in and “clean up” Gaza.

Last night, the EU called for a 48-hour humanitarian cease-fire, and the Quartet (the US, Russian Federation, European Union,and the United Nations) called for an immediate halt to all hostilities.

But the U.S. is still taking a publicly more aloof position — saying that Hamas must be the first to stop its fire.

President George W. Bush called Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the phone on Wednesday to talk about ways to “end the violence” in the Mideast, according to presidential spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who “would not say directly whether Bush had discussed with Olmert the idea of a cease-fire”, according to one news report. Jendroe also said that “Hamas hopefully realizes that they’re in a situation that is not helpful to their own people .. [and] That situation will not lead to a viable Palestinian state.”

This kind of activity shows that the major player, Israel, is playing for time.

If the intention is to completely oust Hamas — and re-install the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority that cut off relations with Hamas in June 2007 after a rout of Fatah security forces — then the planners are most probably aiming to get this done before 9 January, when Hamas, and many other Palestinians, believe the term of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will legally be over.

AP reported that “Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu said the Gaza government was functioning and had met over the past few days. ‘What our people want is clear: an immediate stop to all kinds of aggression, the end of the siege by all means, the opening of all border crossings, and international guarantees that the occupation will not renew this terrorist war again’, Nunu said in a statement”. This report can be read in full here .

Meanwhile, Foreign Ministers of the Arab League met in Cairo on Wednesday, and AP reported from the scene that “Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister on Wednesday blamed Palestinian divisions for Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, a reflection of U.S.-allied Arab governments’ anger at the Hamas militant group. Saud al-Faisal made the comments at the opening of an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in the Egyptian capital, convened to try to put together a joint response by the deeply divided Arab nations to the Israeli offensive, which has killed more than 370 Palestinians and sparked outrage across the Middle East … ‘This terrible massacre would not have happened if the Palestinian people were united behind one leadership speaking in one voice … We are telling our Palestinian brothers that your Arab nation cannot extend a real helping hand if you don’t extend your own hands to each other with love,” he said.

AP said it was clear that his words were directed at Hamas, but it’s not so clear — though Saudi Arabia is closely consulting with Palestinian President Abbas.

AP added, in the same news report, that “Egypt this week turned to Turkey — a regional rival of Iran with close ties to Israel — to put together an initiative to end the Gaza fighting. The Arab League foreign ministers Wednesday were reviewing the plan. The initiative calls for an immediate, unconditional halt to the Israeli assault, followed by a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel, and international monitors to guarantee the truce and the opening of border crossings into Gaza, which Israel has kept largely sealed since 2007”. This report can be read in full
here
.

There doesn’t seem to be very much of anything in this plan for either Israel or Hamas.

It’s not even clear if Hamas were to put its last card on the table — captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit — that would be enough, at this point, to stop the Israeli military machine.

Meanwhile, the human suffering in Gaza is simply almost unimaginable –and may be about to get worse. Hospitals are dealing with an unprecedented number of casualties — without enough medical supplies, without much electricity, and without rest for medical staff who have worked around the clock since “Operation Cast Lead” (or “Operation Solid Lead”) began at mid-day on Saturday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — which normally works on the basis of confidentiality with states parties to the Geneva Conventions, and for whom the issuance of a public statement is a major criticism — said today that “We are concerned over the mounting number of civilians wounded or killed as a result of the hostilities”, according to Pierre Wettach, the ICRC’s head of delegation in Israel and the occupied territories. “Parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and fighters and between civilian objects and military objectives. Whether launching an attack or positioning military personnel and material, all those involved in the hostilities must take every possible precaution to minimize the potential harm to civilians and civilian objects. International Humanitarian Law also requires that medical staff and facilities be protected from attack and that the sick and wounded be evacuated and treated, no matter who they are”.

Wettach added that “We have raised these issues with the Israeli authorities and are continuing to do so. We have also drawn their attention to the importance of ensuring full respect for the principle of proportionality. In our contacts with Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip, we have repeatedly pointed out their responsibilities under international humanitarian law” — the ICRC is also concerned about the civilian deaths and injuries in Israel resulting from repeated rocket attacks launched from inside the Gaza Strip.

Amnesty International issued a statement today saying that “Israeli forces must bear in mind that there are no ‘safe’ places in Gaza for civilians to seek shelter. They know how densely populated the Jabalia Refugee Camp is and that the homes are mostly light structures with flimsy asbestos roofs and not able to withstand the effect of strikes”.

Amnesty also said that “risk to civilians is increased by artillery attacks on Gaza launched from Israeli gunboats off the coast. In the past, such artillery fire into densely populated areas has been
inaccurate, causing Israel to desist from such firing after attacks caused high numbers of civilian casualties”.

And the international human rights organization said that “Humanitarian workers, journalists and human rights monitors are urgently needed to assess needs, report violations and publicise the reality of the
situation on the ground.”

A panel of three judges on Israel’s Supreme Court today did not issue an expected ruling on the main plea by the Foreign Press Association (FPA) to lift the ban on foreign journalists entering Gaza to report on the situation there. Instead, the judges gave the Israeli Government until 10 a.m. on Thursday to answer if they would permit limited “pools” of journalists to enter to make reports on behalf of all other members of the FPA.

The FPA report to its members on the developments in court today says: “The Supreme Court has given the government until 10 a.m. tomorrow to allow limited access to the Gaza Strip for the international media. The Supreme Court is asking the government to allow in pools of up to 12 journalists each time the crossing (EREZ only) is open for humanitarian reasons. he Supreme Court ruling does not apply to any situation other than the current fighitng and our petition for free access under ordinary circumstances remains pending. Although we do not support the concept of pool coverage in Gaza, the Court left us no other choice, ruling that it could be pools or nothing. We have instructed the lawers to proceed in a manner that would avoid turning this pool arrangement into a precedent. Court Background from Board member Enderliln who was present in Court: ‘We are winning a principle. The judges reminded the State’s lawyer of a previous judgement the FPA won about the necessity of allowing a pool entering the “dangerous” area. At the time, the IDF gave in and opened up to all journalists. The State’s lawyers said they do not know this judgment… The judges told them they should have done their homework.”

On Thursday morning, however, wintry rainy weather is expected to clear up, and the cloud cover to lift — providing better conditions for the long-feared ground invasion.

There are reports just coming in from Palestinian sources who say they have encountered Israeli soldiers on the ground in Khan Younis in southern Gaza. But Israel television’s Channel Two reported tonight that a ground invasion will not happen before Friday morning — but this could be disinformation of the sort that preceeded the beginning of the Israeli attacks, by air, last Saturday.