Egypt sends weapons to shore up embattled Abbas

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — With Israel’s blessing, Egypt has delivered a large arms shipment to forces loyal to the embattled Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, officials said Thursday, in the latest Israeli attempt to boost Abbas in his bloody conflict with Hamas.

Though there has been a weeklong hiatus in armed clashes, Palestinians fear the heavily armed security forces of Abbas’ Fateh and Hamas, which runs the Palestinian government, could erupt in violence at any time.

Israel has been trying to reinforce Abbas’ standing among his people. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he is a partner for negotiations — unlike Hamas, which rejects the existence of Israel and refuses to renounce violence.

Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defence ministry official, told Israel Radio the military assistance was rendered to reinforce the “forces of peace” against the “forces of darkness” threatening the future of the Middle East, a reference to Islamic extremists.

Nabil Abu Rudeina, a spokesman for Abbas, issued a statement denying any arms deal. However, at midday Thursday, witnesses saw a truck belonging to the pro-Fateh national security force carrying what appeared to be sealed boxes of weapons.

When the truck attempted to make a quick detour, one box fell onto the ground, scattering a pile of automatic guns on the road, the witnesses said. Security men in the truck quickly got out and collected the weapons.

Israel approved the transfer of 2,000 automatic rifles, 20,000 ammunition clips and two million bullets on Wednesday, Israeli officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the shipment had not been officially confirmed by Israel, the Palestinians or Egypt.

Ahmed Youssef, a political adviser to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, said Egyptian officials had assured him no arms were sent. He accused Israel of spreading false rumours about an arms shipment in “an attempt to increase tensions among the Palestinians”. Seventeen people have died in this month’s Hamas-Fateh fighting, which included an assassination attempt on Haniyeh.

On Thursday, Haniyeh left Gaza to resume a trip to Gulf states that had been cut short by the violence, which has since subsided. He was headed first to Saudi Arabia, then to Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan, where he and Abbas have been invited for talks by King Abdullah.

Some 5,000 Hamas fighters, some on foot, others in jeeps, lined the roads as Haniyeh travelled from his base in Gaza City to the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

Haniyeh’s convoy came under fire at Rafah on December 14 when he came back from his suspended trip, and the heavy security was a clear indication that concerns about his safety remained high.

Meanwhile, one of the Palestinian groups holding a captured Israeli soldier said progress has been made towards a prisoner exchange.

Abu Mujahed, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, said Egyptian mediators are trying to finalise a deal. “We received positive signals from our Egyptian brothers, who are acting on this matter,” he said.

“Everything depends on the Israelis.” He declined to say when a prisoner swap might take place.

The soldier was captured by Hamas-linked fighters in June.

Israel has agreed in principle to free Palestinian prisoners, but there are disagreements over numbers and timing.


West Bank barrier


Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has her own peace plan for the Palestinians, calling for a provisional state with a border based on the contentious barrier Israel is building along the West Bank, according to an interview published Thursday.

With the interview, Livni took some distance from Olmert in what appeared to be the first step in her own campaign. “I am qualified to be prime minister,” Livni, a member of Olmert’s Kadima Party, told the Haaretz daily.

Livni said she knows “exactly what needs to be done” to make peace with the Palestinians, but she declined to spell out her plan.

She said Israel must negotiate with moderate Palestinians, like Abbas, based on the second stage of the 2003 roadmap peace plan.

That would set up a temporary Palestinian state with symbols of sovereignty, ahead of tackling the touchiest issues — the status of occupied Jerusalem, final borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees. It also would skip over the first stage, which calls on Palestinian fighters to disarm and Israel to dismantle dozens of settlement outposts.

She said the West Bank separation barrier is a basis for dividing the land into Jewish and Palestinian states.

The barrier, which Israel says is meant to stop Palestinian suicide bombers, has been denounced by the Palestinians because it dips into the West Bank in some places to include main Jewish settlements. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank.

Livni complained that the Palestinians have missed many opportunities for peace, and warned of “the danger of rising extremism”.

She said, if Israel comes to an agreement with moderate Palestinians, they must take it to their people for approval, something Abbas has already pledged.

“Moderate Palestinians must understand that Islamisation and religious extremism works against them, not just against Israel,” Livni said.

She said an agreement with the Palestinians could be based on the “roadmap”, a 2003 US-backed peace plan, though it was incomplete. “It has a certain lack of content,” she said, but felt that “in talks with the Palestinians, I can fill in the details on this.” Israel and the Palestinians accepted the roadmap, but neither side carried out its initial obligations, and many Palestinian leaders oppose the concept of a provisional state.

Livni said Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last year has shown that peace moves should be the result of negotiations and agreements, instead of “just throwing the keys on the table and walking away”. She noted the rocket fire continuing out of Gaza as an example of the withdrawal’s shortcomings.

She said her peace plan for the West Bank “includes solutions to problems like rocket fire,” without elaborating.

Olmert was elected prime minister on the basis of a plan to withdraw unilaterally from much of the West Bank, but he has since backed away from the go-it-alone concept.

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