Israel attacks Gaza, contacts new Abbas government

RAMALLAH (AP) — Addressing the Palestinian people for the first time since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, President Mahmoud Abbas angrily lashed out at the Islamic fighters Wednesday, accusing them of trying to build an “empire of darkness” in Gaza and pledging he would not talk to “murderous terrorists”.  Abbas delivered the televised speech to a top Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO)  body, the Palestine National Council (PNC), seeking approval for his recent steps, such as declaring a state of emergency, firing the Hamas-led government and setting up an emergency Cabinet of moderates.

He also hinted at the possibility of overriding the Palestinian parliament, where Hamas has a majority, with the PNC, to give formal approval to his new Cabinet.

Despite the harsh setback of losing Gaza, Abbas reiterated that the time is ripe for restarting peace talks with Israel, under the umbrella of an international conference.

At one point, Abbas also described in great detail what he said was a Hamas attempt to assassinate him. He said he obtained footage of Hamas members dragging large amounts of explosives through a tunnel they had dug under Gaza’s main road — the one he takes to get to his office — and saying “this is for Abu Mazen,” Abbas’ nickname. He said he sent the tape to Hamas’ supreme leader, Khaled Mishaal, and to Arab leaders to illustrate Hamas intentions. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri hotly rejected Abbas’ statements. “What he said was disgusting and not appropriate for the Palestinian president,” the Hamas official said. “The president has harmed himself with his words.” The Palestine National Council last convened in 2004, after the death of Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat, and Abbas said he would seek to reactivate the PLO, of which Hamas is not a member, presumably to bypass Hamas and strip it of legitimacy.

Several hours before his speech, Israel fired missiles and sent tanks on a foray into Gaza, killing four Palestinians in the deadliest military action since Hamas fighters took control of the coastal strip.

 Two more Palestinian fighters were killed by Israeli army fire in a shoot-out in the West Bank.

After nightfall, Hamas hit back with a barrage of rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, just outside Gaza, the first Hamas rocket attack since it took over Gaza last week. One rocket hit a house. Israel TV said two Israelis were slightly wounded.

Mahmoud Zahar, the man widely believed to be leading Gaza’s new Hamas rulers, said his group would be open to a ceasefire with Israel if the army halted its activities there and in the West Bank. He said Hamas was capable of halting the frequent rocket attacks out of Gaza. “But nobody will be the protector of the Israeli border,” he told the Associated Press.

At the main passenger crossing between Gaza and Israel, closed since the start of the Hamas takeover, Israel allowed in a few sick and wounded among about 200 Gazans who have been holed up there for days.

A teenager with leukaemia and four other Palestinians in need of medical care went through the tunnel at the Erez crossing in Israel, the military said. Israeli officials also authorised entry of all foreigners living in Gaza.

Israel also allowed in all foreign nationals in Gaza.

Buses brought over some 90 Ukrainians, Yassin said, and Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency reported the evacuation of 69 Russian and seven Belarusian citizens was completed.

The Red Cross coordinated the transfer on Tuesday of seven Gazans wounded in internal strife, and hoped to arrange the transfer of six- to nine more on Wednesday, Red Cross spokesman Bernard Barrett said.

The UN World Food Programme, meanwhile, began bringing in 225 metric tonnes of food into Gaza through Israel, in addition to 200 metric tonnes of food and medical supplies it sent in on Tuesday.

“There is a serious humanitarian crisis developing in Gaza as a result of the recent turmoil and closure of the border crossings,” said Arnold Vercken, WFP director in the Palestinian territories.

In an attempt to consolidate its power, the West Bank-based government Abbas installed Sunday annulled all decisions made by the previous Hamas government, Information Minister Riyad Al Malki said.

He said Palestinian travel documents would in the future only be issued from the West Bank — and if recognised internationally, as expected — would mean Gazans can no longer travel abroad. Security personnel will be deployed in force in the West Bank to restore law and order, he added.

In Washington on Tuesday, US President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed support for Abbas at a high-profile news conference.

Olmert and Abbas will meet next week, Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo told Palestinian radio Wednesday. Olmert’s office confirmed the two would meet but said a date had not been set.

On Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni telephoned Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the new Cabinet Abbas installed after expelling Hamas from its governing coalition with Fateh.

“The establishment [of the new government] facilitates progress on… the peace process,” a Foreign Ministry statement quoted Livni as saying.

Abbas was uncharacteristically harsh in his verbal attack on Hamas. He said the group is trying to establish an “empire of darkness” in Gaza and that it attacked “national symbols,” including the home of Arafat.

“There is no dialogue with those murderous terrorists,” he said.

“Our main goal is to prevent sedition from spreading to the West Bank, … to prevent violation by any party, and to deal [with everyone] equally, based on law,” he said.

Abbas said that despite the turmoil, peace talks with Israel should resume. “The atmosphere is not preventing a start to negotiations,” he said. “We hope international community will contribute, along with “Quartet” [of Mideast mediators], to convene an international peace conference that can lead to negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel.”

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