x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Gaza violence fuels scepticism about talks

A day after Israeli and Palestinian leaders dealt with "core issues", the Israeli military bombs two "weapons storage facilities" in Gaza from which they claim rockets were fired earlier.

JERUSALEM // A day after Israeli and Palestinian leaders dealt with "core issues" during Middle East peace talks in Jerusalem, increased violence in the Gaza Strip has added to the scepticism of ordinary Palestinians about the negotiations. The Israeli military said yesterday that it bombed two "weapons storage facilities" in Gaza from which rockets had been fired during the previous 24 hours.

Although there were no reports of injuries, the attacks followed an Israeli bombing of smuggling tunnels in Gaza, near the border with Egypt, on Wednesday in which one Palestinian was reportedly killed and two others wounded. Fourteen rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza into Israel since the beginning of the week, according to the military. While Hamas has not taken responsibility for the attacks, it has condemned Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, for entering peace negotiations with Israel and vowed to launch attacks to scuttle them.

Amid the fighting, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, was scheduled to meet Mr Abbas in Ramallah yesterday before travelling to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah II. Yesterday, at her welcoming ceremony Mr Abbas reiterated his commitment to the talks. "We all know there is no alternative to peace through negotiations, so we have no alternative other than to continue these efforts," he said.

Mrs Clinton's visit comes after she met with the Palestinian leader and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, in Jerusalem on Wednesday as part of a second round of negotiations. Few details of the session have emerged. While Mrs Clinton told reporters late on Wednesday that the two sides were "getting down to business and they have begun to grapple with the core issues that can only be resolved through face-to-face negotiations," the talks have become increasingly unpopular among the Palestinian public.

On Wednesday, more than 100 demonstrators marched through the West Bank city of Nablus holding placards and waving Palestinian flags to protest against the meeting. "We don't expect anything," to come from the talks, said Khader H Khader, a Palestinian commentator. "The Palestinian opposition is against the talks because there was no framework to base them on, and of course everyday Palestinians are, if anything, afraid of the outcome."

Combined with Israel's insistence not to extend a moratorium on settlement construction, set to expire at the end of the month, analysts said rising domestic dissent has made it crucial for Mr Abbas to walk away from negotiations with face-saving measures. "I don't think Abu Mazen can face the Palestinians if the settlement issue is not resolved in a credible way," said Nabil Amr, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation Central Committee, referring to Mr Abbas by his nickname.

The Palestinian leader has made a moratorium extension a precondition for the talks to continue. Israeli settlements are considered illegal by the international community and encroach on the land that Palestinians want for a future state. Mr Abbas has found increasing international support for his position. The European Union issued a statement yesterday that called on Israel to extend the moratorium, while the London-based Arabic daily Asharq Al Awsat reported that Mr Obama has proposed a three-month extension.

Although Mr Abbas has agreed to the US proposal, Mr Netanyahu, who has come under intense pressure from members of his right-wing ruling coalition and the settler movement to let the moratorium expire, has yet to respond. If the Israeli prime minister extends it, said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political studies at Bar Ilan University, painful concessions may be required on the part of the Palestinians, such as an official relinquishing of the so-called right of return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel.

"The Palestinian public and the Israeli government need to see the Palestinian leadership make some movement on refugee claims and the overall historic narrative behind the refugee claims in a manner that runs parallel to Israeli movement on settlement issue," said Prof Steinberg. "Any negotiation process has to be on the basis of mutual compromise." @Email:hnaylor@thenational.ae