Abbas appeal for peace undermined by suicide attack

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The Independent Online

Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian President, travelled to Gaza last night to begin the daunting task of securing a halt to militant violence.

Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian President, travelled to Gaza last night to begin the daunting task of securing a halt to militant violence.

But soon after he arrived, an agent of Israel's Shin Bet security service was killed and seven other Israelis were wounded in a suicide attack close to the biggest Jewish settlement block in the Strip. A bomber blew himself up near an army outpost near the entry to the Gush Katif settlement block. A witness said the attack ­ swiftly claimed by Hamas last night ­ came when a Palestinian left his car close to an Israeli-controlled checkpoint on the main north-south road in Gaza.

In what may have been a deliberately timed bombing, the attack was launched as Mr Abbas held a series of talks with Palestinian security commanders and Fatah colleagues ahead of his first crucial talks today with the armed factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The urgency of the task confronting Mr Abbas was underlined yesterday when Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, met army commanders for Gaza to hear their plans for halting rocket attacks on Israeli targets including the Gaza settlements and the Israeli border town of Sderot. The meeting came amid continued speculation that the Army could be planning one of its largest military operations in Gaza unless Mr Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, acts against militants.

With Israeli officials indicating they are seeking more than the voluntary ceasefire Mr Abbas is struggling to secure, military officers continued to express scepticism that his instruction to Palestinian security services to enforce a halt to violence would be carried out.

"Israel expects Mahmoud Abbas to take the reins to his hands. In the meanwhile we've been hearing only talk," one unnamed senior officer told Haaretz after yesterday's meeting with Mr Sharon and his Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz.

Bashir Nafe, the commander of Palestinian Special Forces, told Reuters in Ramallah however, that the militant factions would be disarmed.

Before leaving Ramallah for Gaza yesterday, Mr Abbas again expressed optimism that he would secure an agreed ceasefire. But public signs from militant leaders in Gaza, reinforced by last night's bombing, were that Hamas and other armed factions were resistant to agreeing a ceasefire ­ or at least one which is not circumscribed by conditions which Mr Abbas may find difficult to grant.

A senior Hamas spokesman, Mushir al Masri, said that "our priority is not the hudna [ceasefire]", adding: "As long as there is occupation, there will be resistance." Implying that such a ceasefire would not be struck until "all forms of military operations" in Gaza were halted, he said: "The halt to [Israeli] aggression is the grounds for discussing a hudna. The resistance is our ... right ... of self-defence. This is not only the position of Hamas but of all the factions."

Mr Masri did however say that "we are ready to discuss the issue of a ceasefire within a framework of national interest".

Analysts close to Hamas suggested that its spokesmen were hinting at a possible deal under which Mr Abbas would offer a personal guarantee that Israel would not continue operations ­ such as the assassination of militants ­ as Palestinians say it did during the brief ceasefire secured by Mr Abbas in 2003. Mr Masri said: "The Palestinians have experienced a unilateral ceasefire and [Israel] did not respect the ceasefire."

Ghazi Hamad, the editor of the pro-Hamas newspaper Al Risala, said last night that a second condition would be a prior agreement with the armed factions on the basic principles Mr Abbas would apply in any "final status" negotiations with Israel on a two-state solution.

Mr Hamad predicted that Hamas would tell Mr Abbas today: "What we need from you is an undertaking, whether written or verbal, that [Israel] will not break the hudna by demolishing houses, doing incursions or killing militants".

Before leaving Ramallah yesterday, Mr Abbas said he would need help from the international community in seeking to extract a promise from Israel that it would not break any ceasefire.

A leader of a group belonging to Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction pledged yesterday to halt attacks inside Israel, a promise that fell short of the Abbas's calls for non-violence. "We agree to suspend all military action inside Israel ... in order to support Abbas's political programme," said Zachariya Zubeidi, the most prominent West Bank leader in al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.