US SECRETARY of State John Kerry left early Sunday for a series of meetings in Europe seeking to head off an end-of-year UN showdown over a Palestinian bid for statehood.
His first stop was to be Rome where he will meet separately with both Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Diplomats say negotiations on a UN resolution to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects are making little headway, with Europeans waiting for a US response to proposals.
Jordan last month circulated a draft Palestinian text to the Security Council setting November 2016 as a deadline for the end of the Israeli occupation.
But the text ran into opposition from the United States, which has veto power, and other countries that felt it lacked balance, diplomats said. It was never put to a vote.
France stepped in last month to try to cobble together along with Britain and Germany a resolution that would win consensus at the 15-member council.
And the Palestinians have said they would like a draft resolution to go to a vote before the end of the year.
The text would call for a return to negotiations with a view to achieving a two-state solution by which Israel and a Palestinian state would co-exist.
Negotiations have hit hurdles over whether to include a two-year deadline for talks on a final settlement to be completed.
France is also proposing to host an international conference to launch the new peace track.
Kerry met Thursday with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius on the sidelines of climate talks in Lima, to discuss the tensions in the Middle East.
Supporters of a UN resolution are now hoping to win US backing or at least ensure Washington will not oppose the measure — which would be the first text adopted by the council on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 2009.
‘There is a window of opportunity,’ said a European diplomat. ‘There is a willingness from the Americans to consider options at the UN.’
Kerry led dogged efforts earlier this year to try to reach an Israeli Palestinian peace deal, but the bid collapsed amid bitter recriminations by both sides.
Relations between the US and Israel have been uneasy since, amid a series of spats and behind-the-scenes name-calling.
Kerry is due to meet Lavrov on Sunday, shortly after arriving in Rome. Talks with Netanyahu follow on Monday, after which the top US diplomat is expected to travel on within Europe although no stops have yet been announced.
Russia responded angrily on Saturday to news that US senators had passed a bill calling for fresh sanctions against Moscow and the supply of lethal military aid to Ukraine.
The eight-month conflict in Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists has left at least 4,634 dead and 10,243 wounded, while displacing more than 1.1 million people, according to the United Nations.
Deputy Russian foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said however the main focus of the Rome meeting – the 17th between the two diplomats this year – would be the Middle East.
The talks come as European parliaments in Britain, France, Spain, Ireland and Portugal have asked their governments to recognise Palestinian statehood – a move that would bypass negotiations.
And the campaign for snap Israeli elections in March is also complicating the regional political landscape.
‘There are a lot of different folks pushing in different directions out there, and the question is can we all pull in the same direction,’ Kerry said Friday, when asked about his meeting with Netanyahu.
‘We’re trying to figure out a way to help defuse the tensions and reduce the potential for more conflict, and we’re exploring various possibilities to that end.’
l Although Hamas officials announced two weeks ago that the movement decided to cancel the Gaza City celebrations of the 27th anniversary of the movement’s founding, it organised a massive military parade Sunday on the occasion as top officials delivered zealous speeches.
The first official to address the audience in the televised ceremony was Abu Ubayda, the spokesman of the group’s military wing the Al-Qassam Brigades.
‘We warn of the moment of explosion which won’t be in the interest of occupation.’
He added that the 27th anniversary wasn’t only a Hamas anniversary, but one which awakened the spirit of Jihad in the whole nation. This anniversary, he said, is a major turning point in the region’s history.
Addressing Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody, Abu Ubayda said that ‘the day you will see the light of freedom has become closer than any point in the past, so you needn’t bother thinking of numbers, figures, alive, dead, bodies, torn-off limbs or how and when.’
The spokesman described a proposed Israeli Knesset resolution to ban the release of Palestinian prisoners by saying that ‘to us, it’s not worth the ink used in writing it’.
‘Ask your leaders in which desert they lost your soldiers and children, and to what unknown destiny they sent them and continue to send them,’ Abu Ubayda said addressing the Israeli public.
He added that they should ask the leaders and army commanders to tell the truth about what happened to the Israeli soldiers in Gaza.
‘Hamas and its brigades knew how history should be written and they prepared for that in blood and are still doing the same but in an escalating manner.’
All the group’s military divisions participated in the parade including artillery, naval fighters, tunnel units, snipers, defensive units, infantry and anti-aircraft units.
Meanwhile the The Hamas movement condemned last Saturday an explosion targeting the French Cultural Center in Gaza City on Friday.
Hamas leader Ahmad Yousef said that the movement condemns the attack and that such an action does not serve the Palestinian cause. Why at this specific time at which France has a generous stand toward Palestine?’ Yousef added.
A Palestinian was injured late Friday in the explosion near the French Cultural Center in western Gaza City.
Gaza police spokesman Ayman al-Batneiji said that the Gaza police, explosives engineering and the criminal investigations department arrived to the area and opened an investigation into the incident.
It was the second explosion that occurred at the same site in less than a month.
The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the attack, saying that ‘the side responsible for such a criminal action does not belong to Palestinians as culture is a major part of the Palestinian identity’.
The statement added that those responsible for the explosions are ‘ignorant and do not appreciate the role of culture in the Palestinian national fight’.
The ministry said the ‘attack on the French Center was an attack on the Palestinian culture as well’.
The target of this attack was the recent strong stand by the French as a government, Senate, and people, the statement added.
The ministry, and on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, pledged to follow up investigations on the incident to identify those responsible for the attack and hold them accountable.
The Gaza Ministry of Internal Affairs said Saturday that an investigation to look into the details of the explosion was opened.
Iyad al-Buzm, ministry spokesperson, said in a statement that the explosion targeting the wall surrounding the center caused damage.
Al-Buzm added that security services surrounded the area and started investigation procedures.
• In an indirect way to confiscate private Palestinian land, Israeli authorities have earmarked hundreds of acres in the western outskirts of the village of Kafr al-Dik near Salfit in the central West Bank as natural reserves, a researcher said Sunday.
Khalid Maali said that Israeli forces have seized a bulldozer while trying to enlarge a dirt road in the area known locally as Banat Bar. The driver was told that he was unlawfully excavating in a natural reserve.
The soldiers seized the bulldozer without telling the driver when or how he can take it back.
The Banat Bar area is located near the Israeli settlements of Ale Zahav, Peduel and Leshem.
Maali said that earmarking Palestinian land as a natural reserve was part of preparation for confiscation so as to expand the three settlements.