Amid a flurry of diplomatic visits aimed at securing a smooth Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and military escalation by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) that claimed a second Palestinian life in 24 hours, the Palestinian National Authority leadership Thursday pledged calm during the unilateral Israeli move.
This was despite Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Wednesday ordering the closure of the Strip and four small Jewish colonies in the northern West Bank to ‘Jewish non-residents.’
The IOF extra-judicially executed Palestinian anti-occupation activist Mohammad Safwat al-Aasi, 24, while he was talking to a reporter inside his house early Thursday during a raid into the northern West Bank city of Nablus.
This came a day after reoccupying the town of Tulkarem, the adjacent refugee camp and the nearby village of Attil and killing a Palestinian policeman on Wednesday.
Israel also suspended all contacts with the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), allegedly in protest against the Natanya bombing on Tuesday, which claimed one Palestinian and four Israeli lives.
The Palestinian Interior ministry said in a statement Wednesday the Israeli side cancelled a scheduled meeting between minister of civilian affairs Mohammad Dahlan and Israeli ‘defence’ minister Shaul Mofaz.
Israel also cancelled other scheduled meetings, including one in Tel Aviv between Palestinian security chief General Jamal Abu Zayed and Israel’s deputy interior minister General Yitzhak Hareel.
Ariel Sharon also on Wednesday sealed off the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and ordered the IOF to extra-judicially target the leaders of the Palestinian anti-occupation group the Islamic Jihad, whose senior leader in Gaza Khaled al-Batsh renewed his movement’s commitment to the truce Wednesday, provided the truce is reciprocal.
‘Calmness for calmness and violations response to violations,’ al-Batsh said.
Abdallah Shallah, secretary general of the Islamic Jihad Movement, in Beirut said: ‘We say that our commitment to the calm will be based on the extent to which the Zionist enemy will be committed to it.
‘But we do not accept, nor did the Cairo agreement stipulate, that the calm become a trap for killing the Palestinian people and hunting the mujahideen.
‘We ask brother Abu Mazen (President Abbas) and the PNA to commit to the Cairo agreement. We also appeal to the brothers in the factions to preserve the spirit of the Cairo agreement; namely, that there should be a reciprocal agreement.
‘Brother Abu Mazen: You are not weak. You are leading a people who have remained steadfast for a century.
‘They will not break our will, God willing. We care about the calm as long as it is in the interest of the Palestinian people.
‘But neither Abu Mazen nor the entire world would accept that we continue to stand idle while being massacred.
‘We appealed to the Egyptians and the PNA and appeal to the entire world now – if they care about stability – to speak to the powerful, tyrannical, and arrogant side and not speak to the victim.
‘We tell brother Abu Mazen and the PNA that we are the victim.
‘Everyone should expect a reaction, which could be beyond what they expect.
‘This is because their (Israelis) calculations are based on the assumption that the Palestinian people are weak, incapable, and powerless, and that they are the only strong party.’
Palestinians described Sharon’s orders as a military escalation that threatens the truce, which Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas reached with Sharon on February 8 and which 13 anti-occupation groups still observe.
Abbas met in Gaza city on Thursday with the anti-Israeli occupation groups, who reconfirmed their commitment to the truce, he said.
Earlier in the year Abbas issued with the Palestinian factions the Cairo Declaration, committing signatories thereof to a one-year truce.
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer set off Wednesday for two days of meetings with Palestinian and Israeli leaders.
Fischer was expected in Ramallah Thursday for talks with President Abbas, Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei and Foreign Minister Nasser Al Kidwa.
German officials said Fischer plans to emphasise international interest in efficient coordination between Israel and the PNA ahead of Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip late in August.
For the same purpose, the European Union’s political chief Javier Solana met with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday.
In a joint press conference with Qurei after meeting with Abbas, Solana said that 40 days to the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, Israeli people and the international community and we all act together in order to make this step a success.
Abbas also met with the EU’s special envoy to the Middle East Marc Otte, who was accompanying Solana.
In his joint press conference with Solana, Prime Minister Qurei said that ‘we will do our utmost to assume power in a qualified manner and impose law and order in all areas Israel pull out from and at the same time to continue this process for the next withdrawal from the West Bank.’
Abbas also on Wednesday briefed the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, on the Palestinian preparations for the Israeli withdrawal during a meeting in the presidential headquarter in Ramallah.
The Russian Middle East envoy is also expected in Ramallah, a few days after a similar visit by his Chinese counterpart.
Meanwhile, Qurei said Wednesday Palestinian security forces were working round the clock to maintain calm.
‘The security forces and Palestinian police are working vigorously and swiftly to end this armed chaos and I think that there is some progress in this field,’ he said.
Qurei said it was particularly important that the Palestinian people as a whole were able to demonstrate self-discipline during the Israeli operation to withdraw troops and settlers from Gaza next month.
Israel’s army has said it will not hesitate to respond if troops come under fire during the pullout, even if that leads to civilian casualties.
‘If there is more chaos when the Israelis withdraw, the only loser will be the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause,’ Qurei said.
He added: ‘The Israeli withdrawal will help us to secure the situation in Gaza and we hope that everyone, the citizens and the factions, will meet their responsibilities.’
However, he warned: ‘There is nothing to encourage us in the coordination with Israel. We are not negotiating with them, merely trying to get some information because we want the withdrawal from Gaza to be calm and well organised.’
The Israeli premier on Wednesday ordered the closure of the Gaza Strip and four small Jewish colonies in the northern West Bank to “Jewish non-residents,” declaring them closed military areas, to prevent anti-disengagement protestors from entering the Jewish settlements slated for evacuation and destruction.
The closure also means that Palestinians will not be allowed to enter Israel.
According to a statement from Sharon’s office, he had met with ‘Defence’ Minister Shaul Mofaz, Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra and the heads of various security forces on Tuesday, when they agreed in theory to seal off the communities slated for evacuation.
IOF soldiers set up a roadblock Wednesday morning and began turning away all those without residence permits.
At the Kissufim crossing into the Gush Katif cluster of Gaza Jewish colonies, long lines began forming almost as soon as soldiers set up the roadblock.
Israeli soldiers took those trying to enter without residence permits aside and turned them away. Some of those turned away began arguing with the soldiers, but most left quietly.
In response to the closure, the Council of the illegal Jewish settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories (Yesha Council) said in a statement, ‘this is the first time in history that a Jewish prime minister blockades Jewish communities and declares a part of Israel Jews-free.’
There are more than 8,000 Jewish settlers who live on 41 per cent of the Gaza Strip area among more than 1.3 million Palestinians in 21 Israeli colonies, which the Hebrew state built on Palestinian land it occupied in 1967.