Palestinian factions warn Israeli strike on Gaza threatens truce

TWO SISTERS AND one man were wounded early Monday morning when Israel launched a second air strike in as many weeks in the Gaza Strip.

According to Palestinian hospital sources, the three bystanders were wounded by shrapnel from three missile strikes in what the Israeli army said was an operation targeting two rocket launchers. Palestinian medics said the two victims, sisters aged 19 and 32, were in a serious condition.

An Islamic Jihad spokesman said two members of the group had fired mortars at a Jewish settlement near the Jabaliya refugee camp, where the incident occurred, and that the three missiles were meant for them, but that they escaped unharmed.

Palestinian factions warned Monday that a de facto Middle East truce was in jeopardy after the Israeli strike.

In the hours after the attack, the Islamist movement Hamas, although it has signed up to the truce, rejected a call from Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to renounce violence, Agence France-Presse reported.

“Peace agreements will only bring further losses and push back our cause,” said spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, pointing out that Abbas’ Fateh movement also maintains its own armed wing, the loosely affiliated Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

“Israel’s escalation makes the truce empty. We affirm the right to avenge this crime and to self-defence. We ask the international community to intervene to stop this aggression,” he told AFP.

On May 18, the Israeli army launched its first air strike in the Gaza Strip since February, when a brace of mortars were fired at Israeli settlements in the Strip. Hamas then said the mortar fire was in response to the earlier killing of a Hamas activist, but Israel said its army had nothing to do with that incident.

“Israel should keep the truce on both sides because the truce is in the interests of both parties to continue,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told AFP.

Abbas said the time had come for Hamas to renounce violence and enter into dialogue with Fateh.

“The climate right now is ready for political negotiations,” said Abbas, speaking through an interpreter to ABC television in the United States.

The spike in violence does not bode well for Abbas’ attempts to keep the current truce intact.

On his recent visit to Washington, US President George W. Bush urged Abbas to rein in the armed Palestinian groups, but Abbas has repeatedly voiced his reluctance to enter into a direct confrontation, preferring instead a continued dialogue with opposition factions, notably Hamas.

That dialogue, however, has come under strain after a Palestinian judicial committee ruled that because of electoral irregularities, municipal elections should be repeated in three Palestinian councils, all of which went to Hamas in the first count.

Hamas is opposed to a repeat of the votes, but yesterday the judicial committee insisted that elections in Rafah, Beit Lahiya and Breij will be held again on June 1.

Hamas is also opposed to a delay in holding parliamentary elections, scheduled for July, a delay that appears all but certain with the Palestinian Legislative Council and Abbas yet to agree on a new elections law.

Elsewhere, the aide to former Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, Samir Rantisi, was killed in his sleep early Monday when an unknown gunman burst into his house.

Early reports suggest the Palestinian police have identified the gunman, but it is not clear what is the motive for the murder. Palestinian towns and cities are suffering from a spate of lawlessness that, despite campaign promises by Abbas, have yet to abate. Friday night saw a shoot-out between Palestinian police and another Palestinian security force in the centre of Ramallah.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, the Greek Orthodox community voted to install a new temporary patriarch, Cornelius, to replace Irineos I. Irineos continues to call himself patriarch, however, even though his clergy has voted him out of office and the Orthodox Church’s highest authority, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, voted to stop recognising him last week.

The move comes after allegations that Irineos approved the apparent sale to foreign Jewish investors of land on Omar Ibn Khattab Square just inside the Old City’s Jaffa Gate. The Old City and the eastern part of Jerusalem was occupied by Israel in the 1967 war and unilaterally annexed. The annexation has not been recognised by any other country, and Palestinians want occupied Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Irineos denies the allegations and has vowed to revoke any sale or lease of land that took place. The Greek Orthodox community of some 100,000 people looks set to have two patriarchs for the foreseeable future until the Palestinian Authority, the Jordanian government and the Israeli government agree to formally sack Irineos.

In another development, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Monday that a meeting between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could be held “in a very short time” to discuss the withdrawal.

“It might take place in a very short time, in a few weeks,” said Shalom, speaking at an EU-Mediterranean conference in Luxembourg. “If it would take place, I think it would take place maybe in Jerusalem.”

Shalom said the talks would have the aim “to coordinate the implementation of this disengagement plan.”

But one senior Israeli official threatened Sunday that Israel would reoccupy parts of Gaza and send troops into Palestinian cities if Palestinian security forces fail to prevent attacks on Israeli soldiers during the pullout.

“We need to take preventive measures to make the withdrawal possible. One of those measures could see us enter and occupy Khan Younis to secure the pullout,” said Giora Eiland, the head of Israel’s National Security Council.

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