Gaza Truce Remains Fragile, Say U.S. Officials

U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, left, and Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman January 31Obama’s Mideast peace envoy completes first round of regional consultations

By David McKeeby

Washington(RushPRNews) 02/04/09 — As President Obama’s Middle East envoy completes his first round of regional consultations, continued violence in the Gaza Strip threatens international peacemaking efforts, says State Department acting spokesman Robert Wood.

“We knew this was going to be a very difficult situation,” Wood told reporters February 2. “We want to try to build on a cease-fire and make sure that it is lasting.”

Sporadic attacks continue despite unilateral announcements by Hamas and Israel of a cease-fire following a 22-day Israeli military offensive to stop the Palestinian militant group from launching rocket and mortar strikes on surrounding Israeli communities. As Egyptian negotiators continued diplomatic efforts to consolidate the truce January 31, militants launched 10 rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel, which responded with a series of air strikes along the border and in northern Gaza.

“We’re very concerned about these violations of the cease-fire,” Wood said.

U.S. special envoy George Mitchell — a former U.S. senator and veteran Northern Ireland peace negotiator — was dispatched to the region by the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton January 26 to meet with regional leaders and discuss ways to strengthen the cease-fire, reopen Gaza’s border crossings and develop an effective humanitarian response effort to help Palestinians in Gaza rebuild. (See “U.S. Envoy Expresses Concern for Loss of Palestinian Lives”)
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Following initial consultations with top officials in Egypt, Israel and the West Bank, Mitchell traveled to Jordan January 31 to meet with King Abdullah II, then on to Saudi Arabia for talks with King Abdallah bin Abd Aziz and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faysal bin Abd al-Aziz, Wood said.
George Mitchell and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner seated, talking (AP Images)
U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, right, and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner February 2

“Lasting peace is our objective, and the United States will sustain an active commitment to reaching the goal of two states living side by side in peace, stability and security,” Mitchell said January 29 following a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

In Jerusalem, Mitchell met with U.N. humanitarian aid officials as Obama announced $20.3 million in new humanitarian aid for Palestinian civilians in Gaza — part of $60 million in American aid already delivered to area residents through the United Nations in 2009. (See “Obama Provides Emergency Funds for Gaza Relief.”)

Before returning to Washington to report his findings to Obama and Secretary Clinton, Mitchell also stopped in Paris for consultations with President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who worked closely with Egypt to mediate an end to the latest Gaza crisis.

Middle East peace efforts are expected to be among several issues topping the agenda when Secretary Clinton meets with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Washington February 3, Wood said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has arrived in the region to work with Egyptian authorities as they attempt to shut down a network of tunnels into Gaza that could be used to smuggle in weapons for future attacks, Wood said.

Israel and Egypt have kept their borders with Gaza closed since June 2007, when Hamas forcibly seized control of the territory from the internationally recognized Palestinian government based in the West Bank. Mitchell has said he wants the border crossing to be reopened under the terms of a 2005 agreement that places the Palestinian Authority in control of the main Egypt-Gaza crossing at Rafah, with European monitors deployed to prevent arms smuggling.

“We are working with Egypt, others too, to try to figure out a way that we can better secure that border,” Wood said. “[Weapons smuggling] has to stop if we’re ever going to really, I think, tackle this issue of going beyond a short-term cease-fire.”

What actions should President Obama consider to help build Middle East peace? Comment on America.gov’s blog.

photo credit AP