The Obama administration's Mideast point man said Thursday that the Palestinian government in the West Bank must play a crucial role in cementing the shaky Gaza truce so broader peace efforts can be revived.
The top political leader in Hamas-ruled Gaza said the group's top priority after Israel's bruising offensive was to heal the rift that has led to dueling Palestinian governments. Speaking publicly for the first time since the Jan. 18 cease-fire, Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh also expressed hope the U.S. would change its Mideast policies.
Israel launched its three-week military campaign to end years of rocket fire on its southern towns but said toppling Hamas was not its aim. On Thursday, however, leading candidates to become Israel's next prime minister warned that the militants' days of ruling Gaza were numbered.
“In the long run, there won't be any other choice but to topple the Hamas government,” said front-runner Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party.
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And Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, head of the governing Kadima Party, said ousting Hamas was Israel's “long-term objective.”
A new Israeli government will be formed after the Feb. 10 election. The current government has made it clear that no peace accord could be implemented as long as Hamas remains in control of Gaza. Gaza and the West Bank are to make up a future Palestinian state.
Washington dispatched George Mitchell to the Mideast a week after President Obama took office. On Thursday, Mitchell held talks with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, which controls only the West Bank.
As he did in his meetings with Egyptian and Israeli leaders Wednesday, Mitchell emphasized the need to halt arms smuggling into Gaza and end the crippling blockade of the territory, imposed after the Hamas takeover.
“It's important to consolidate a sustainable and durable cease-fire,” Mitchell said. “To be successful in preventing the illicit trafficking of arms into Gaza, there must be a mechanism to allow the flow of legal goods, and that should be with the participation of the Palestinian Authority.”
Mitchell wants the crossings opened on the basis of a 2005 agreement brokered by the U.S. that puts Abbas' people in control of the main Egypt-Gaza passage, with European monitors to prevent smuggling. Hamas also wants a role at the crossings. Israel and Abbas do not want Hamas there.
A flare-up of Gaza violence this week has underscored the need to shore up the truce.
Palestinians fired a rocket into Israel on Thursday but it fell on open ground. An Israeli airstrike targeted a man riding a motorcycle in the south Gaza town of Khan Younis, and residents said five passers-by were wounded, including children walking home from school.
The Israeli military said the motorcyclist was part of a bomb attack Tuesday that killed an Israeli soldier.