Israeli aircraft strike Gaza as leaders convene peace talks

MILITANTS launched mortar shells into Israel and Israeli jets bombed targets in Gaza, just as Israeli and Palestinian leaders held peace talks in Jerusalem with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Gaza militants opposed to peace with Israel have threatened to derail the fledgling negotiations, and the Israeli military said eight mortars and one rocket hit Israel by mid-afternoon on the day of the talks – the highest daily total since March 2009. There were no injuries.

Israeli warplanes responded by bombing a smuggling tunnel along the Gaza-Egypt border, the military said. Hamas officials said one person was killed and four wounded.

In Jerusalem, little more than an hour’s drive from Gaza, Clinton said Israeli and Palestinian leaders were “getting down to business” on the issues dividing them, though there was no sign they were any closer to resolving a looming crisis over Israeli West Bank settlements.

The American secretary of state was in Jerusalem for a second day of talks aimed in part at ending the impasse, a day after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a summit hosted by Egypt.

Clinton told reporters: “I believe they are serious about reaching an agreement that results in two states living side by side in peace and security.”

Abbas has threatened to walk out of the talks if Israel resumes construction in the settlements after a 10-month slowdown expires at the end of the month.

Clinton and US President Barack Obama have called on Netanyahu to extend the slowdown.

Netanyahu has signalled he is looking for a compromise.

Earlier this week, he said the current curbs will not remain in place after the end of this month, though he will continue to restrict building activity to some extent.

The Palestinians oppose the settlements because they eat up land they want for their future state.

Some 300,000 Israelis live scattered among the West Bank’s 2.5 million Palestinians.

An additional 200,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem, the section of the holy city the Palestinians claim as their capital.

Obama has made his pursuit of a Middle East settlement a centrepiece of his foreign policy. After months of US shuttle diplomacy, he summoned the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to Washington early this month to launch the first direct negotiations since talks collapsed in 2008 following Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.

Negotiators will have to tackle a series of issues that have undermined talks in the past: the location of the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the competing claims to the holy city of Jerusalem.

But they will have a hard time addressing those disputes if they cannot resolve the disagreement on the settlement slowdown.

The slowdown is set to expire on September 26, and Netanyahu is being pressed by many of his religious and nationalist allies in Israel’s coalition government to resume construction. Members of his own Likud Party have taken out adverts in Israeli daily newspapers in recent days demanding an end to the slowdown.

Both Netanyahu and Abbas share a common enemy: Hamas. The Islamic group took over Gaza in 2007 after ousting Abbas’s forces, and it has threatened to unleash new violence as the peace talks move forward.

Early this week, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency warned that Hamas would try to torpedo the talks.

Picture: US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem yesterday.


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