Israel offers Palestinians control of Gaza-West Bank link – report

RAMALLAH (AP) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday denied recent Israeli news reports that secret peace talks have made progress on some of the most sensitive issues at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In the latest account, the Israeli daily Haaretz said Israel has offered the Palestinians a territorial link between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The report, citing unidentified Israeli government officials, said the secret talks are aimed at reaching the outlines of a peace deal before an upcoming US-sponsored regional conference.

Abbas’ office called the Haaretz report “baseless”. In a statement, it said, “there is no secret channel and what was published about scenarios and expectations in some Israeli media is not true”.

It said Abbas has made his positions clear in meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and repeated to the media. “These talks have not reached a level of negotiations with details, as what was reported in Israeli newspapers.”

The Palestinians consider a territorial link between Gaza and the West Bank to be vital for establishing an independent state.

The two territories are located on either end of Israel, creating security issues for Israel that have become even more complicated since the Islamic group Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the Jewish, state took control of Gaza in June.

According to Haaretz, Israel would grant the Palestinians control over a highway across Israel, linking Gaza and the West Bank, once Abbas regains control over Gaza.

As part of the emerging offer, Israel would grant the Palestinians control of the equivalent of 92 per cent of the West Bank and of Arab neighbourhoods around East Jerusalem, Haaretz said. Israel would also indirectly accept some responsibility for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war that lead to its existence, the daily said.

Olmert’s office declined to comment on the Haaretz report.

In the past week, other Israeli media have reported that Israel has begun discussing with the Palestinians core issues that have kept the two sides from reaching an agreement in the past.

The Palestinians have pushed Israel to discuss these issues, namely the borders of a Palestinian state and the fates of disputed Jerusalem and of millions of Palestinian refugees.

Under US pressure to expand the scope of negotiations, Israel has said talks are on “fundamental issues”, but has not defined what that means. The unpopular Olmert appears to be too weak politically to tackle the most explosive issues in the 60-year conflict.

Peace talks broke down in 2001 after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising.

Olmert and Abbas are expected to meet by the end of the month as part of the talks leading up to the US-sponsored summit, expected in the autumn.

The conference is part of a revitalised US push for an Israeli-Palestinian deal since Abbas expelled Hamas from government after it seized control of Gaza.

Abbas has set up a new government in the West Bank, headed by economist Salam Fayyad.

As momentum to revive peace talks mounts, a new poll, released Thursday, shows that Palestinians overwhelmingly prefer the Western-backed Fayyad government over the ousted Islamic Hamas’ government, although residents of the Gaza Strip believe their security has improved since Hamas seized control of the area.

The survey by Ghassan Khatib, an independent and respected pollster, was the first since Hamas took over Gaza in five days of fighting in June.

Following the takeover, Abbas threw Hamas out of the unity government with his Fateh Party and formed his new Cabinet based in the West Bank. Hamas, which continues to control Gaza, refuses to recognise the new government.

In the new poll, 47 per cent said the Fayyad government is performing better than the previous Hamas-led Cabinet led by prime minister Ismail Haniyeh. In comparison, 24 per cent favoured Haniyeh’s government, while 23 per cent said there was no difference between the two governments. Six per cent did not answer.

Even in Hamas’ Gaza stronghold, 47 per cent of respondents said they think the Fayyad government is performing better than Haniyeh’s government, compared with 31 per cent who say Fayyad is worse.

Still, Gaza residents say their security situation has improved since Hamas took power. The militant group has pledged to restore law and order to the chaotic area, banning public displays of weapons.

According to the poll, 44 per cent of Gaza respondents said their personal security has improved, while 31 per cent said it has become worse.

However, with Gaza facing isolation and economic hardship, 45 per cent of Gazans say the general situation has worsened, while 34 per cent say it is better.

The poll indicated diminished support for Hamas, which trounced Fateh in January 2006 legislative elections.

When asked which party they support, 34 per cent of the respondents said Fateh and 21 per cent said Hamas. The same question before Hamas takeover in June brought Fateh 33 per cent and Hamas 29 per cent.

If a presidential election was held today, Abbas would get 20 per cent of the vote, Haniyeh 18 per cent and Marwan Barghouthi – a Fateh leader imprisoned by Israel – would get 16 per cent.

The question did not take into account the possibility that Abbas or Barghouthi might pull out of such a race to back the other in a showdown with Hamas.

The poll questioned 1,200 people in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

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