Olmert looks for Blair's support as violence in Israel escalates

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The Independent Online

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, is expected to gain the support of Tony Blair today for his refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians' Hamas government, despite a weekend of bloodshed in the Gaza Strip which saw the violent unravelling of a 16-month-old ceasefire.

During a meeting in Downing Street, Mr Blair will tell Mr Olmert that Britain supports his dismissal of negotiations with Hamas until the Islamist movement renounces violence and accept Israel's right to exist.

Mr Olmert said last night that he would be asking Mr Blair "to help facilitate this process in order to make the Palestinians change their minds". The talks - certain to anger British Muslims - come the day after a further spiralling of violence in Gaza.

Two Hamas gunmen trying to fire a Qassam rocket into the Negev were killed in an Israeli air strike, while a 60-year-old Israeli civilian was critically wounded by a Palestinian rocket attack which hit a school yard.

It was one of more than 30 launched over the weekend in retaliation for the killing of eight Palestinians picnicking on a Gaza beach - seven of them from a single family - during Israeli shelling on Friday night.

Downing Street has not condemned the killings.

Amir Peretz, Israel's Defence Minister, hinted that Israel could begin targeting Hamas political figures if the rocket fire continues.

Before leaving for Europe, Mr Olmert insisted that Israel would continue to act "with full force" against the persistent rocket attacks which began in retaliation for Friday night's deaths and which Hamas declared were the end of a fragile 16-month ceasefire.

"We will not refrain from operations that can foil rocket firings anywhere and in any situation, as necessary," said Mr Olmert.

Hamas said it would continue its offensive until Sderot's 24,000 residents, who include Mr Peretz, fled. "We have decided to make Sderot a ghost town," a spokesman said.

A spokesman for Mr Blair said Hamas was "taking a step in the wrong direction" by abandoning its ceasefire. "The Israelis withdrew from Gaza last year on the basis that the Palestinian Authority would take responsibility for security but the reality is Palestinian groups are still firing rockets and the Israelis are right to be concerned about what they see there," he said.

"The Palestinians need to get back to the negotiations and show they are getting a grip on security ... The Israeli Prime Minister has made it very clear he is willing to talk to the Palestinians so the onus is on the Palestinians that they are ready for negotiation."

Mr Olmert told Sky News yesterday that he did not expect Mr Blair to put pressure on him to speak to Hamas until it had renounced violence. "I don't hear President Bush, I don't hear Hosni Mubarak, and I don't think I will hear Tony Blair telling me to speak with the Palestinian government, which is a terrorist government," he said. "England doesn't speak to this government. The Americans don't speak to it. Egypt doesn't speak to this government. Why should I?"

While in London, the Israeli Prime Minister is expected to discuss with Mr Blair his plan for withdrawing from some of the occupied settlements and his efforts to put pressure on Hamas by supporting Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President. Before touring European capitals, Mr Olmert will also hold talks on the economic regeneration of the Palestinian territories with Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary.

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