Amid the tensions, messages of conciliation

WHILE Israeli troops and Palestinian militants traded threats over the Gaza border, surprising messages of conciliation were issued from the Middle East.

The new head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency reportedly apologised to British officials for the use of cloned passports in the assassination of a Hamas member in Dubai in January.

Despite escalating tensions with Israel, the dominant Hamas political figure in the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Zahar, said Hamas wanted to maintain calm with Israel, saying this was “not a sign of weakness, but strength”.

And Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, who has criticised Israel since its forces killed nine Turkish militants trying to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza in May, said: “We have the intention of making peace with Israel.”

Tamir Pardo, who took over command of Mossad this month, was reported by Britain’s Daily Telegraph to be planning to meet his British counterparts in MI5 and MI6 when he visits London next month. As well as apologising over the faked passports – 12 of the 26 used were British – Mr Pardo will reportedly promise that Israel will never do it again.

The Mossad station chief in London was expelled after then British foreign secretary David Milliband said Israel had shown a “profound disregard” for British sovereignty by faking the passports. The aim of Mr Pardo’s visit will be to rebuild relations.

In Gaza, Mr Zahar’s moderate statement followed the firing of dozens of rockets and mortar shells into Israel, to which Israel responded with airstrikes that killed at least five militants.

A discordant note was struck by the head of Hamas’s military wing, Ahmed Ja’abari, who said that in the end Israel would face two choices: “Death or getting out of Palestinian lands.”

Members of Gaza’s small Christian community were permitted to pass through Israeli territory to attend Christmas services in Bethlehem on the West Bank. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who met them, told reporters that when a Palestinian state is established “it would have no Israeli presence in it”. He was referring to Israel’s demand that its troops continue to be deployed in the Jordan Valley after the creation of a Palestinian state.

In Turkey, the ferry that was attacked by Israel got a rapturous welcome from thousands yesterday as it returned to Istanbul. Crowds waving Turkish and Palestinian flags lined the quay, chanting “Allah is Great”.

The Mavi Marmara will be part of a new flotilla that will leave for Gaza on May 31, the anniversary of the raid, its owner said.

Mr Davutoglu, while declaring Ankara’s intention to pursue peaceful relations, could not withhold a jab at Israel. Repeating Turkey’s demands for an apology for the nine flotilla deaths and compensation for the families, he noted Turkey’s swift dispatch of fire-fighting aircraft to help quell a forest fire in Israel this month.

If the situation were reversed, he said, it would have taken Israel days to act. Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, gave an angry response. Terming Mr Davutoglu’s remarks “lies” and “beyond chutzpah”, he said that if there was an apology to be made it should come from Turkey.

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