Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Israeli soldier killed, Gaza truce breached

Nidal al-Mughrabi and Alastair Macdonald
Tuesday, January 27, 2009; 9:04 AM

GAZA (Reuters) - An Israeli soldier was killed by a bomb on the border with the Gaza Strip on Tuesday and troops then killed a Palestinian, straining a fragile ceasefire and leaving people in Gaza fearing further Israeli attacks.

Ten days after Israel halted a devastating, three-week air and ground offensive that killed 1,300 people in the coastal enclave, neither the ruling Hamas movement nor any other group claimed responsibility for the attack on the Israeli patrol.. But on the day that U.S. President Barack Obama's envoy arrived in the Middle East bearing a message that the "moment is ripe" for peace talks, Israeli leaders facing an election in two weeks time promised voters they would hit back.

"I don't care who fired," said Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading the ruling party in the campaign for the February 10 ballot. "Hamas controls Gaza and is responsible for everything that happens. Whenever they fire at me from Gaza, set off a bomb or launch a missile or smuggle (weapons), Israel will respond."

Hamas said an air strike some hours later targeted two people on a motorcycle, a type of vehicle often used by its gunmen. Medics said the pair were critically wounded.

Although not claiming responsibility, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri praised the bomb attack on the troops as "a natural response to the crimes of the occupier." Two Palestinians were killed last week in incidents blamed on Israeli fire.

The early morning skirmishing was the bloodiest since the 22-day Israeli offensive ended in ceasefire declarations.

The Israeli military said a bomb was detonated against its forces on the Israeli side of the border fence near the Kissufim crossing in the central Gaza Strip, killing one soldier and wounding another three. Israeli fire later in the same area killed a Palestinian who medics said was a 27-year-old farmer.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said: "This was a grave and unacceptable incident and we will respond."

Palestinians living near Kissufim crossing told Reuters they saw at least two gunmen move up toward the border fence in the morning mist. They later heard explosions and gunfire.


Israel said that in response to the attack it shut down the crossing points through which flow the humanitarian aid and other supplies on which the 1.5 million people of Gaza depend. Aid agencies have been urging Israel to ease restrictions on trade to help rebuild thousands of homes destroyed in bombing.

"The crossings have been closed due to the attack," said Peter Lerner, a Defense official. "This is another example of terrorist activities against the crossings, the same crossings that serve the Palestinian people for humanitarian aid."

It was unclear when the crossings would reopen, he said. Militant groups have previously directly attacked the transit crossings while demanding an end to Israel's blockade on Gaza.

Residents later saw Israeli helicopter gunships in the air and Israeli infantry moving inside the Gaza Strip.

Ten Israeli soldiers were killed during the offensive that began exactly a month ago on December 27. Three Israeli civilians also died.

Hamas and Israel declared separate ceasefires and both sides are negotiating through Egyptian mediators on a longer-term truce. Hamas wants an easing of Israel's blockade. Israel wants guarantees Hamas cannot renew rocket fire on its towns.

In an interview broadcast on Al Arabiya, Obama said Israel and the Palestinians should resume peace negotiations.

His envoy George Mitchell arrived in Egypt on Tuesday and is due in Jerusalem on Wednesday for talks with Israeli leaders.

Obama's predecessor George W. Bush pushed hard in his final year in power but negotiators failed to hit his goal of a deal on establishing a Palestinian state by the time he left office.

Obama said: "The moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it's time to return to the negotiating table."

He has promised the Muslim world a fresh approach but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking to world Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on Monday, said the new U.S. president also assured him Washington remained a friend to Israel.

Recounting a telephone call from Obama shortly after he took office last week, Olmert said: "He wanted to emphasize the importance and the centrality of the conflict that Israel is involved in and the traditional friendship and commitment that the United States has to the state of Israel."

Olmert, who quit over a corruption scandal, will step down finally once a new government is formed following the election.

As well as uncertainty over who will be governing Israel -- the right-wing opposition chief Benjamin Netanyahu is tipped by polls -- Mitchell also faces a divided Palestinian leadership.

Egypt said on Tuesday that proposed a new meeting on February 22 to try to end a schism between Hamas, which won a parliamentary election in 2006, and Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, whose power has been restricted to the Israeli-occupied West Bank since Hamas seized control of Gaza 20 months ago.

(Additional reporting by Lin Noueihed in Dubai, Adam Entous in Gaza and Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Comment: Note that again, it was Hamas, who broke their word. Lest the media, academics and talking heads frame this differently, know the facts. The international leadership "honestly believes" that we can trust any agreement made with them? Utter nonsense!

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