Abbas, Olmert expected to meet next week

158.jpgRAMALLAH — Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters battled it out for over 45 minutes in Ramallah yesterday evening, when a large contingent of Israeli soldiers entered the West Bank city in what the Israeli army said was an “arrest operation”.

One Palestinian, Omar Abdul Halim, reported to be a member of President Mahmoud Abbas’ Force 17 security services, was killed and four were injured, according to the Maan news agency.

No Israeli injuries were reported.

Witnesses told The Jordan Times that Israeli undercover troops had surrounded a house on a street in central Ramallah when they were spotted and the gunbattle broke out. Israeli backup jeeps and armoured personnel vehicles were soon on hand as the centre of the town closed down for the duration of the shooting.

Unmanned aerial drones could be heard circling overhead.

An army spokeswoman said the man killed was a wanted member of Fateh’s Tanzim group, and that he had opened fire first at the Israeli troops trying to detain him.

The operation came hours after Abbas told a news conference in Ramallah that he would meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on June 7.

Olmert’s office would not verify the date but said a meeting had been scheduled. A spokesman did tell Reuters that any meeting would focus on the “composition” of a Palestinian state, but that no final status issues would be discussed.

Abbas said he would push for a renewed truce that would start in Gaza and then extend to the West Bank after a month if successful.

Israel repeatedly refused to enter into a comprehensive ceasefire including the West Bank when the Gaza ceasefire was still in force. Yesterday, Olmert told the Israeli parliament that he had no intention of entering into another ceasefire any time soon.

“We have no intention of reaching any kind of settlement, neither with Hamas nor with Islamic Jihad. We will hit them and continue to hit them.”

Earlier Tuesday, two Hamas men were killed during an Israeli incursion into the southern Gazan town of Rafah, the second such incursion in a week and a clear escalation of Israeli army operations in the strip that until then, and since the ceasefire broke down, had been confined to air strikes.

Nearly 50 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in the past ten days, at least 13 of them civilians.

Olmert, meanwhile, will likely need to focus on his own political survival in the near future after his main coalition partner, Amir Peretz, lost his bid to be reelected as leader of the Labour Party.

His two main challengers, former prime minister Ehud Barak and a former security chief, Ami Ayalon, will face each other in a run-off in two weeks, after Barak failed to garner the necessary 40 per cent of the vote to win outright.

Both have vowed to withdraw the Labour Party from the ruling coalition unless Olmert resigns his post as prime minister, but Ayalon is more likely to make good on that threat. Barak and Olmert have enjoyed good relations in the past, and the latter will be hoping that Barak wins the Labour leadership.

If Labour should withdraw from the coalition, Olmert will need to reach out to another party to ensure a majority coalition. The most likely candidates, United Torah Judaism and the Likud, are both right-wing parties whose inclusion into government will not bode well for Abbas’ efforts to restart peace negotiations.

But Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu is riding high in the polls, and he may prefer to bring down the government completely and force early elections.

In all cases, political turmoil in Israel is sure to forestall any progress in talks between Abbas and Olmert.

In Amman, meanwhile, Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah Khatib “reiterated Jordan’s condemnation of the Israeli aggression against the Palestinians”, the Jordan News Agency, Petra, reported.

At a meeting with  Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Azzam Ahmad, Khatib warned the “dangerous repercussions” of the military escalation.

The foreign minister called on Palestinian factions to stop their infighting, Petra said. 

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