Israel's leading writers demand talks with Hamas on a ceasefire

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A group of Israel's most influential writers – including David Grossman, Amos Oz and A B Yehoshua – have called on the government to open talks with Hamas on a ceasefire in Gaza.

Yehoshua, one of Israel's most revered novelists, underpinned the call yesterday by pointing out that Israel had "many times" negotiated in the past with its sworn enemies.

The 11 writers have signed a petition urging Ehud Olmert's government to negotiate to end both the militant rocket attacks on Israel and the frequent air strikes and military incursions into Gaza by the Israeli military. The conflict has repeatedly cost Palestinian –including civilian – lives in recent weeks as well as bringing misery to the western Negev border town of Sderot because of persistent Qassam attacks.

The Israeli cabinet – which has rejected the call – last week declared the Gaza Strip a "hostile territory" and decided in principle to start cutting off its fuel and power in a move which has provoked serious public concern by both the EU and the UN.

Yesterday in a further response to last week's cabinet decision, the Israeli bank Hapoalim announced it was severing connections with Palestinian banks in Gaza.

Yehoshua declared from his home in Haifa that he and his colleagues had made the call to end "the very disturbing, very terrible situation for the inhabitants of Gaza and for Israelis who live along the border".

He added: "We have many times negotiated with enemies who are totally hostile to Israel or didn't recognise Israel – Jordan, Syria and Egypt. In 1981 Menachem Begin agreed to a ceasefire with the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organisation] even though it was completely denying the legitimacy of Israel."

Yehoshua explained that of the two parts of the petition the first had been to encourage Mr Olmert to pursue his negotiations on an outline accord with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, who has established an emergency government in the West Bank.

But he warned that he doubted the Israeli public would endorse a peace deal between Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas, or sanction withdrawals of troops and settlers from the West Bank, "without calming Gaza".

He said that he believed Hamas should be offered ceasefire talks before implementation of "extreme measures" against the population of Gaza.

"I do not know how Hamas will respond." But he said the offer of talks – which would be unconditional on both sides – "would throw the dice into the hands of Hamas and say stop the stupid rockets you are launching into Israel".

Acknowledging that there had so far been no positive response from the government, Yehoshua said that one of the aims had been the longer term one of helping to "prepare the legitimacy" of such talks with Hamas.

He said the PLO – now headed by Mr Abbas – was these days a "dear son" to Israel but added: "I remember 20 years ago when we were calling for talks with them if you even mentioned the words PLO people said they wanted to kill you."

But he said he also hoped that the authors' declaration would "enter the consciousness" of Palestinians in Gaza so that they would bring parallel pressures on Hamas for a ceasefire.

Mark Regev, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: "We are an open and democratic society where people can hold different opinions. But the opinion of the government is that if you start to talk to Hamas and give them legitimacy and recognition, you undermine the [Palestinian] moderates."

Taher Nounou, spokesman for the de facto Hamas government led by Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza, said any ceasefire had to be conducted on both sides and that Israel had to "lift the siege" on Gaza. Any reaction to the intellectuals' proposal should await an official response from Israel.

Before Hamas's bloody takeover of Gaza in June, Hamas had insisted that any ceasefire had to operate in the West Bank, but Yehoshua said the West Bank was now an issue for the emergency Palestinian government – with whom there was a ceasefire.

* Israel's Infrastructure Minister, Benjamin Ben Eliezer, said the jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti should be released in a prisoner exchange involving the Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped in Gaza 14 months ago.

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