US SUPPORTS ISRAELI ONSLAUGHT as Abbas holds talks with Mubarak

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After cancelling a planned October 2 meeting with Israeli premier Ariel Sharon, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and his delegation arrived in Cairo on Tuesday evening on a two-day visit to Egypt.

Abbas has been holding talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as the EU and Britain claimed to be leading an effort to contain the Israeli military escalation, which the UK and the United States said they ‘understand’ as ‘self-defence’, amid the ongoing roaring of US-made Apache helicopter gunships and F-16s over the Gaza Strip.

Earlier on Tuesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei, alias Abu-Ala, was extremely critical of the resumption by Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) of the wave of assassinations, arrests and incursions, which have afflicted a number of cities and villages in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Chairing the Palestinian cabinet’s weekly session, which was held via videoconference at the Prime Ministry’s Ramallah and Gaza headquarters, Qurei said that the Israeli escalation and the resumption of assassinations posed a significant threat to the entire peace process and region, and even to efforts to revive this process.

The session was held in Ramallah and Gaza City via videoconference due to the cabinet’s inability to meet in one place in light of the refusal by Israeli authorities to grant cabinet members the necessary permits.

Criticising this Israeli measure, Qurei said: ‘These measures contribute to the Gaza Strip’s transformation into a prison.’ He underlined the need to monitor and stop these arbitrary measures. Qurei called on the international community, the Quartet and the United States to halt this aggression and noted that our Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip were facing a ‘barbaric assault’.

The prime minister welcomed resistance movement Hamas’s decision to suspend its bombardment of Israel from the Gaza Strip, saying: ‘This is the policy we urged. ‘It provides us with a framework of a common perception of the nature of dangers facing us, as well as the ambitions we all seek to fulfil through the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with holy Jerusalem as its capital.’

Qurei warned against the dangers inherent in the Israeli arrest campaign, where more than 370 strugglers were arrested in the past few days, and called on the world to understand these dangers. Referring to the daily Israeli raids on West Bank cities and villages, Qurei asked: ‘Are they the result of Israel’s departure from the Gaza Strip?’

The prime minister said that these measures did not reassure Palestinians at all that the peace process was being seriously addressed, and criticised the exploitation of Palestinian blood in the Israeli domestic policy regardless of the nature of this policy.

Meanwhile, President Abbas said on Sunday he did not plan to meet with Sharon on October 2, that the latest Israeli military escalation has ‘no justification’ and had ‘shot down the efforts to advance the peace process’ after Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip. Abbas, during a meeting of the PLO Executive Committee in Ramallah on Saturday, held the Israeli government responsible for the military escalation in the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s military escalation and the Israeli resumption of extra-judicial killing of Palestinian anti-occupation activists and the air strikes have also led to postponing a visit to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and Israel by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, which was expected this week.

US President Bush last Thursday had asked the visiting Jordanian monarch to visit Sharon and Abbas to help advance the peace process, adding the monarch ‘graciously agreed’ to meet with both leaders. Meanwhile the EU’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana appealed to the Israelis and Palestinians on Monday not to squander the chance to revive peace moves offered by Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as the British minister for Middle East affairs, Kim Howells, was traveling to the region for talks with Israelis and Palestinians on sustaining the peace process.

Solana said a surge of violence showed the road ahead would not be easy. ‘The stakes are high. The leadership on both sides is under serious pressure. Both sides need Gaza disengagement to work, with important elections looming next year, and so do we,’ Solana told a conference in Paris.

He told the Institute for Security Studies of the European Union: ‘For the Palestinians this is a chance to win over the sceptics, in Israel and elsewhere, that they can actually run their own affairs in a responsible manner. For Israel, the logical priority is to ensure that Gaza will not become hostile territory from which terrorists launch attacks on neighboring communities and the rest of Israel.

Events in the last few days and hours have reminded us that this will not be easy.’

In London the UK Foreign Office said Monday that the British minister for Middle East affairs, Kim Howells, was travelling to the region for talks with Israelis and Palestinians on sustaining the peace process. According to a press release by the British embassy in Tel Aviv, Howells said: ‘I will be visiting the region in the coming days to listen to Israelis and Palestinians and others working hard on the ground to clarify how we can maintain momentum in the peace process and to look specifically at how the international community can help the Palestinians make Gaza economically viable and secure.’

Before leaving London Howells expressed his concern about the recent increase in violence in Gaza. He said: ‘The escalation in violence in Gaza in recent days serves no purpose but to endanger the opportunities for a better future that disengagement has offered the area.’

But he justified the Israeli military escalation as self-defence. Howells added: ‘Israel has the right to self-defence when attacked, but it is important that their response is appropriate and proportionate.’

He also attacked Hamas, saying: ‘There can be no excuse for any sort of terrorist violence, and I condemn entirely the recent rocket attacks by Hamas.’ Howells dismissed Hamas’s ceasefire announcement, adding: ‘Hamas have made such statements. The whole of the international community will hope that this announcement is genuine and that deeds follow words.’

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urning to the PNA he said, ‘the Palestinian Authority must do more’, to ‘deliver its security commitments’. Howells added that during his visit he would also be looking ‘specifically at how the international community can help the Palestinians make Gaza economically viable and secure’.

Earlier on Monday, UK Chancellor Gordon Brown revealed Monday that he plans to lead an initiative with the support of the European Union and G-8 industrialised countries designed to rebuild the infrastructure of the areas controlled by the Palestinians. He said: ‘I have talked to the Israeli Finance Ministry and I hope we can make a contribution that will recognise that a strong and fair economy can lower the amount of violence and underpin development.’

Separately the US administration on Monday similarly said that the United States understood Israel’s ‘right’ to defend itself. ‘But, in taking actions to defend itself, we ask Israel to consider the effect that its actions may have on reaching the overall goal that all share of achieving two states living side-by-side in peace and security,’ US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. McCormack, like Britain’s Howells, also cast doubt on Hamas’ announcement.

The PNA has repeatedly called on the United States to intervene with Israel to halt its military escalation.