x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Mitchell warns of setbacks

The US envoy to Middle East calls for a 'durable and sustainable ceasefire' as he announces US$20 million in new assistance for Gaza.

JERUSALEM // George Mitchell, President Barack Obama's envoy to the Middle East, warned yesterday that the recent violence in Gaza and southern Israel shows that further setbacks are likely in the search for peace in the region.

"The tragic violence in Gaza and in southern Israel offers a sobering reminder of the very serious and difficult challenges and unfortunately the setbacks that will come," the former senator who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland said in Jerusalem. Speaking during his first official visit to the region, Mr Mitchell said it was important to build a "sustainable and durable" ceasefire and to address Gaza's humanitarian needs before moving forward.

He also passed on the sentiments of the new US administration, saying: "President Obama has expressed his deep concern about the recent loss of life and substantial suffering in Gaza." At a UN warehouse packed with aid for Gaza, Mr Mitchell announced that Mr Obama had approved US$20 million (Dh73.6m) in new assistance for Gaza. The money, on top of nearly $40m in ongoing US support, will be used to provide food, medicine and shelters, officials said.

Later in the day he met Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Israeli opposition party Likud, and said he planned to return to the country one month after the Feb 10 national elections, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported. According to the newspaper, Mr Netanyahu said that if elected prime minister, he would continue peace talks with the Palestinians, but said that Israel's security interests would "take precedence". Opinion polls show that Mr Netanyahu, a former prime minister, is likely to win the election.

A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas militants has been in place since Jan 18, more than three weeks after Israel launched its first air strikes on Dec 27. About 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the operation, which Israel said it launched to stop militants firing rockets at southern Israeli towns. More than 700 of the dead were civilians, medics said. Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed.

During his visit, Mr Mitchell urged Israel and Hamas to reach a durable truce that would include opening Gaza's border crossings - most of which are controlled by Israel - and stop Hamas's weapons smuggling into the impoverished territory. Mr Mitchell also yesterday met Isaac Herzog, Israel's welfare minister who is in charge of the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza. While Mr Herzog told Mr Mitchell that Israel was allowing the passage of enough basic supplies for all the territory's 1.5 million inhabitants and was helping in the reconstruction of damaged infrastructure, some human rights organisations disputed his statements.

Gisha, an Israeli rights group, said that since Israel ceased its attacks on Jan 18, it had allowed into Gaza only half of the industrial diesel supply needed for the power plant to operate at full capacity and has held up the transfer of spare parts necessary to repair the electricity system. "Without spare parts to fix the badly damaged secondary lines and with local production capacity limited by the fuel restrictions, 300,000 people in Gaza are still entirely without electricity and the others receive power only sporadically," Gisha said in a statement. "Water supply and sewage treatment and removal have been interrupted, and hospitals continue to suffer long power outages."

The ceasefire has failed to stop the violence. Israeli jets bombed several tunnels underneath the Gaza-Egypt border on Wednesday after an Israeli soldier and two Palestinians were killed the day before. Mr Mitchell travels to Jordan today and Saudi Arabia tomorrow. vbekker@thenational.ae rditcham@thenational.ae