Rocket attack as Blair prepares to urge Israel to ease stance on Gaza

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The Independent Online

The launching by militants of a rocket at Ashkelon threatened an unofficial lull in violence in Gaza yesterday as Tony Blair, the international Middle East envoy, prepared to press Israel to ease the economic blockade on the Strip.

Responsibility for the rocket, which landed in the south of the city without causing injuries hours after a visit by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, was claimed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

But Mark Regev, Mr Olmert's spokesman, said Hamas controlled Gaza and was responsible for every missile fired from there.

The rocket was the first fired at Ashkelon since Israel ended military operations in Gaza during which three soldiers and 120 Palestinians –including at least 50 civilians – died.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak – whom Mr Blair is to meet today – for "sabotaging" negotiations on the outlines of a two state agreement, according to Jordanian journalists who met him in Amman.

Mr Abbas was quoted as saying "a top Israeli official is sabotaging the peace talks ... due to a personal hostility towards me." Jordanian journalists reported it was clear that Mr Abbas was talking about Mr Barak.

Mr Barak, the Labour leader has been widely depicted by some of his Cabinet colleagues as taking a significantly more hawkish line than some in his own party and even than Mr Olmert himself.

Mr Blair is expected to renew calls today on Mr Olmert and Mr Barak to agree to some opening of Gaza crossings as well as to ease restrictions in the West Bank. He also broadly endorsed the concerns of Palestinian negotiators and the international community over Israeli settlement expansion plans.

He said after a meeting in Ramallah with Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian emergency government yesterday: "Here in the West Bank to achieve economic change that we want we've also got to get a lifting of access and movement restrictions."

Insisting that movement on this needed to be "faster and further" and was even more essential because of recent violence, he added: "Unless ordinary Palestinians can see real change then it's difficult for negotiations to succeed because there is a credibility gap between what people can negotiate about and what people can see in their daily lives."

Mr Blair repeated that a "different and better" strategy was needed for Gaza. He is expected to urge Israeli leaders today to allow crossings to open to revive part of the collapsed private sector in Gaza as well as to ease conditions for internationally-backed projects.

These include –but are not confined to – his own earmarked sewage project in Beit Lahiya. He said: "We should be doing everything we can to help the people in Gaza without helping those who are launching rockets on Israel and doing their best to undermine the [negotiating] process."