JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – A prominent Hamas official tried to open discussions with Israel to ease confrontation in the Gaza Strip but was rebuffed, a Palestinian official familiar with the situation told Reuters on Friday.
Though it was officially denied by Hamas, and Israel said its senior officials had had no contact, it appeared to be a first attempt by the Islamist movement to establish relations with the Jewish state since it seized control of the coastal enclave in June after routing the forces of President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel and its Western allies have long shunned Hamas for its refusal to renounce violence and recognise the Jewish state.
ublic broadcaster Israel Radio said Israel rejected an approach from Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, through a “mediator”, to a senior Israeli defence official before the Israeli security cabinet declared Gaza an “enemy entity” on Wednesday. The Palestinian source told Reuters Hamas sought talks with Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai, offering to rein in rocket fire into Israel in return for an easing of border controls.
Haniyeh, Palestinian prime minister until he was dismissed by Abbas following June’s factional warfare in Gaza, has said before that Hamas would discuss practical measures with Israel to ease trade and traffic across Gaza’s borders. But he has not previously offered to negotiate on security issues like the rocket fire by militant groups allied to Hamas.
Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad initiated the attempt to contact Vilnai, the Palestinian source said. But the two did not talk.
Haniyeh’s administration issued an official denial that there had been any talks with Israeli officials, dismissing it as hostile “propaganda”. Spokesman Taher al-Nono noted, however, that the authorities in Gaza wanted a “reciprocal calm” with Israel that would bring an end to the “siege” of the territory.
A spokesman for Vilnai, deputy to Defence Minister Ehud Barak, said he was unaware of any such Hamas approach and added: “There was no contact between Vilnai and anyone from Hamas.” Since Abbas, leader of the secular Fatah faction, dismissed Haniyeh’s government following the Hamas rout of Fatah forces in Gaza three months ago, Israel has opened talks with Abbas on peace moves and Western aid has resumed to the West Bank. But the smaller Gaza Strip has been all but sealed off. Since declaring Gaza an “enemy entity”, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s security cabinet has said it will now consider cutting supplies of energy from Israel in response to militant attacks.
West Bank and Israeli officials insist that the Palestinian schism is not a major obstacle to efforts to draw up a new peace plan to be endorsed at a U.S.-hosted conference in a few weeks. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday, said she was optimistic they could agree a joint document on key issues before the meeting, which is pencilled in for November. But Rice said she did not think the document would include a timetable for Palestinian statehood — a key demand of Abbas: “A timeline isn’t wise at this point, but we will see if one is helpful later … They are going to address the core issues.”
Both leaders face questions on how far they can deliver on any agreement to settle borders and pledge mutual security.
Olmert confronted his own party on Thursday over criticism that he may give away territory in the West Bank and Jerusalem. He said that, while Hamas was a threat, it was important to seize the opportunity of having a partner for peace in Abbas. But underlining Israeli scepticism of Abbas’s ability to rein in militants like Hamas and others, Vice Premier Haim Ramon assured Israeli radio listeners on Friday that any accord would not take effect soon: “The other side cannot do anything right now,” he said. “First of all, we need a joint declaration.”
Ramon provoked an outcry this week by saying Palestinians would control of parts of Jerusalem under a peace deal. He said on Friday the city would still be Jewish, and Israel’s capital.
Friction over Israeli control of access to sites holy to Muslims was evident on Friday as troops barred Palestinians from reaching Ramadan prayers at al-Aqsa mosque as part of security for the Jewish fast of Yom Kippur, starting on Friday evening. “They are celebrating their religious holiday at the expense of the Palestinian people,” Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, the senior Muslim cleric in Jerusalem, told Reuters.