Obama envoy expected in Middle East this week

Obama envoy expected in Middle East this week

US President Obama looks on as Middle East envoy George Mitchell (R) speaks at the State Department.

January 26, 2009, Monday/ 17:27:00/ REUTERS
US President Barack Obama plans to dispatch his Middle East envoy to the region this week, in a quick start to the new administration’s efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and shore up a shaky Gaza truce.

Obama has taken the Middle East by surprise with the speed of his diplomatic activism.

Western, Arab and Israeli diplomats said his envoy, former US Sen. George Mitchell, plans to meet leaders in Egypt, Israel, the occupied West Bank and Jordan, but they ruled out direct contacts with Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip.

A Western diplomat said Mitchell was likely to go to Saudi Arabia but said Syria was not now on his schedule. The trip is expected to last roughly a week and will likely include a stop in Saudi Arabia but not Syria, one diplomat said.

Israel's refusal to fully lift its blockade of the coastal enclave following its devastating 22-day offensive, which killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, has thrown into doubt the future of the cease-fire and post-war reconstruction.

A Palestinian official, who is close to the truce talks taking place in Cairo, said both Israel and Hamas would hold their fire as long as Egyptian mediation continued.

But little tangible progress has been made thus far into turning the fragile cease-fire into something more lasting, and diplomats said time was running out. A Feb. 10 Israeli election appears likely to bring to power the right-wing Likud party, which is critical of US-backed peace moves.

Israeli border police arrest a Palestinian during clashes in the West Bank city of Hebron. Hamas supporters held a march in Hebron on Friday celebrating the victory of Hamas over Israel during the recent war in the Gaza Strip.

Israel is determined to deny Hamas any political gains from the conflict and believes its restrictions at the border crossings will give it leverage in talks to free Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants in a 2006 raid.

Hamas, meanwhile, has cemented its hold on the Gaza Strip and its 1.5 million residents, casting doubt on assertions by Israeli leaders that the group has been severely weakened during the 22-day offensive. Schools and the few government ministries not destroyed in the bombing, reopened on Saturday. “Good morning! Still alive?” excited teenage girls asked each other at the start of classes at Beach Preparatory School in Gaza city.

Hamas plans to start distributing up to 4,000 euros ($5,000) in cash to families hard hit by Israel’s offensive. Despite Western backing, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas’s rival, has been prevented by Israel from bringing cash into Gaza that would allow his Palestinian Authority to pay its workers and support those in need. Israel said it halted the fighting in the Gaza Strip after securing commitments from the United States, European powers and Egypt to crack down on Hamas arms smuggling.

France said on Friday it was sending a frigate to patrol international waters off the Gaza coast, but few other concrete measures have been announced. “We have to wait and see. It will be tested by the results,” a senior Israeli official said.

Israel believes its air strikes destroyed at least 80 percent of the smuggling tunnels under Gaza’s border with Egypt. They have been used by Hamas and ordinary Palestinians to bring in arms and commercial goods, bypassing Israel’s blockade.

Senior Israeli defense official Amos Gilad said his government was more concerned about regulating the items being smuggled into Gaza than destroying the tunnels themselves.

“The tunnel is not the problem. It’s what they are bringing through it,” Gilad told Israel’s Channel 2 television. “If the smugglers knew the cost of smuggling Iranian rockets is 20 years in an Egyptian prison, they would beware.”

The Obama administration has met with skepticism from Hamas, which won a 2006 Palestinian ballot only to be shunned by the West for refusing to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

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