Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 18:06 pm (KSA) 15:06 pm (GMT)

Israeli jets bomb Gaza tunnels as US envoy due

Israel said the strike on the tunnels came in response to the Gaza border attack (File)
Israel said the strike on the tunnels came in response to the Gaza border attack (File)

Israeli warplanes bombed Wednesday tunnels under the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt that are used by fighters to smuggle weapons, the army and witnesses said. The attack came hours before a U.S. peace envoy was due to arrive in the Jewish state.

The army said that the strike on the "Hamas tunnels" came in response to the attack along the Gaza border on Tuesday where one Israeli soldier was killed and three others were wounded. An air strike shortly afterwards killed one Palestinian on a motorcycle whom a spokesman identified as the planner of the roadside bomb attack.

"The Israel Defense Forces (army) sees Hamas as accountable for preserving the peace in Israel's southern villages and will respond harshly to any attempt of undermining it," it said in a statement.

Residents of the Gaza town of Rafah and Hamas security officials said some people began to flee their homes in panic as the aircraft struck three times before dawn. There was no initial word of casualties.

Israeli first reaction

 The killing of the man on the motorcycle was only an initial reaction and that Israel's full response was still to come, 
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

"Israel wants the calm in the south to continue but yesterday's deadly attack from Gaza was an attempt to deliberately undermine the calm," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told AFP.

"In the face of such violent provocation, Israel will act to protect itself."

The exchanges were the first major military developments since Hamas and Israel declared separate ceasefires earlier this month after Israel's 22-day offensive against the Gaza Strip, that left 1,300 Palestinians killed and more than 5,000 injured. 13 Israelis were killed during the offensive.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said late on Tuesday that "the killing of the man on the motorcycle was only an initial reaction and that Israel's full response was still to come," Israeli media websites reported.

Israel and Hamas are negotiating through Egyptian mediators on a longer-term truce. Hamas wants Israel to lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel wants guarantees that Hamas will not again fire rockets at Israeli towns.

Ripe moment for peace

Mitchell had productive talks in Egypt, where he met Egyptian FM Ahmed Abul Gheit

U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell is expected to arrive in Israel later on Wednesday to take the first steps towards reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

A former U.S. senator and experienced mediator who helped end the Northern Ireland conflict, Mitchell began his regional tour in Cairo on Tuesday bearing a message from U.S. President Barack Obama that the "moment is ripe" for peace talks.

He will meet Israeli leaders on Wednesday afternoon and visit the West Bank on Thursday to talk to Palestinian leaders, but Western diplomats said he would not meet Hamas officials.

Mitchell had "productive" talks in Egypt. He met European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, U.S. State Department acting spokesman Robert Wood told reporters.

Mitchell is visiting the region to listen to U.S. allies about "the best way to go forward" not only in stabilizing Gaza but also in seeking in the long-term a "two-state solution" for Israel and the Palestinians, he said.

 The moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it's time to return to the negotiating table, 
U.S. President Barack Obama

Obama has made clear the Middle East conflict is a high priority he wants to tackle early in his presidency and, in an interview with Al Arabiya satellite channel, said he had told Mitchell to "start by listening" and report back.

"The moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it's time to return to the negotiating table," he said.

Obama assured Israel’s Olmert he would maintain Washington's commitment to Israel, but also praised King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for a Saudi-sponsored peace initiative offering Israel peace with the Arabs in exchange for withdrawal from Arab land occupied since 1967 and a just solution for Palestinian refugees.

Mitchell is also due to visit Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France and Britain on his week-long trip.

Setting out positions

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said that Israel does not want peace

Israeli and Palestinian leaders set out their positions on Tuesday before Mitchell's arrival.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a candidate to succeed Olmert in a Feb. 10 election, told Jewish leaders: "We need ... to achieve a peace treaty with the pragmatic Palestinians, with a legitimate Palestinian government which expresses the vision of two nation states ..."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said he would toughen his stance following Israel's 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip.

He said he would tell Mitchell that Israel's Gaza offensive proved it was not intent on peacemaking.

"Israel does not want peace, otherwise it would not have done this. We need to understand this and tell it to those coming from Europe and America. Israel wants to waste time to strengthen facts on the ground with settlements and the wall."

Israel began its massive attack on Gaza, ruled by the Islamist group Hamas, on Dec. 27 saying it wanted to stop Hamas rocket fire into nearby Israeli towns.

Priority over Syria

Clinton said the U.S. gives priority to Israeli peace talks with the Palestinians over Syria

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday said that the U.S. gives priority to Israel's peace talks with the Palestinians over those with Syria amid concern for the humanitarian problems in Gaza.

"We are at this moment focused only on the Israel-Palestinian track," Clinton told her first news briefing when asked what were the plans for Syria under President Barack Obama's administration.

"And I think it is important to put the emphasis where it rightly belongs," Clinton said, adding it is important to consolidate the ceasefire in Gaza after the 22-day Israeli offensive against Hamas ended Jan. 18.

"But of course we're concerned about the humanitarian suffering. We're concerned any time innocent civilians, Palestinians or Israeli, are attacked," said the chief US diplomat.

"And it's ...regrettable that the Hamas leadership apparently believes that it is in their interest to provoke the right of self-defense instead of building a better future for the people of Gaza," she said.

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