Middle East diplomacy heats up

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement concerning the release of abducted Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in his office in Jerusalem on Thursday. Israel would free 1,000 Palestinian prisoners if the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas releases Gilad Shalit, the soldier its militants captured four years ago, Netanyahu said.

Middle East diplomacy is heating up ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Washington on Tuesday for talks on the easing of Israel’s land blockade of Gaza, and the next steps that can be taken to replace the years-long embargo.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu offered to hold direct meetings with the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, notching up from current indirect talks.

“I call on President Abu Mazen (Abbas) to come to Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said, adding, “I’m prepared to go to Ramallah.”

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak was also to meet face to face with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Meanwhile, Abbas said in a rare interview with Israeli journalists that he was ready to be a partner for peace, but needed more encouraging signs from Israel on security relations and the borders of a future Palestinian state.

Tensions between Israel and the U.S. have eased since Israeli commandos killed nine pro-Palestinian activists on a Turkish-flagged aid vessel bound for Gaza on May 31. Amid worldwide outcry, Netanyahu postponed a Washington trip scheduled for the following day.

But an announcement that Israel would allow more “civilian goods” into the isolated Gaza Strip was welcomed by the U.S., which called for additional ways to improve freedom of movement and commerce between Gaza and the West Bank.

Human rights groups say that the agenda for the Washington meeting should be focused on the welfare of Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank, where abuses by Israel and Palestinian groups are causing misery for ordinary civilians.

“The Gaza blockade should be ended,” said Bill Van Esveld, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. “It hasn’t weakened Hamas, and it’s actually putting Hamas under pressure to be more hard-line.”

The Islamic faction, which won a parliamentary election in 2006, controls Gaza. Its rival, Fatah, oversees the West Bank.

But, said Van Esveld, the deaths of more than 1,000 Palestinians and the destruction of thousands of homes during a conflict that began in December 2008 — and the continuing deprivation of Gazans under the embargo have fuelled more radical groups that are challenging Hamas’s authority.

It has also created a criminalized black market for goods smuggled through tunnels connected with Egypt.

With heavy dependence on foreign aid for daily needs, and trade and commerce blocked, more than three-quarters of Gazans are living in extreme poverty. About 10 per cent of children are reportedly stunted from malnutrition, and 20,000 people are still without homes. A situation that fosters bitterness.

“The Islamic splinter groups are worrying,” said Van Esveld in Toronto Thursday. “Hamas has been enforcing its own ceasefire since March 2009, but there are still three or four rockets a day being fired into Israel.”

The radicals’ pressure has increased human rights abuses, as Hamas tries to boost its image as an Islamic reformer, he added. “Married couples walking together have been stopped and asked for their marriage licences. The owner of a popular meeting place, the Gallery Café, has been threatened and beaten because men and women mingle there. They’re also closing down some civil society associations that were not doing anything illegal.”

In a controversial report released in May, a team of senior intelligence officers at the U.S. Central Command called for the integration of Hamas into Palestinian security forces led by Abbas’s Fatah faction. And it said that the group was now too powerful a political player to be ignored.

But it is unlikely that Israel and the United States — which have declared Hamas a terrorist group — will put contacts with the group on the agenda in the Washington meetings. Observers are hoping, at best, for small steps to continue easing the Gaza blockade, and rein in Israel’s expanding settlements which have been a stumbling block to restarting the peace process.

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