GAZA CITY, Jan 29 – Spiralling violence near Gaza threatened on Thursday to shatter ceasefires that ended a war in the Hamas-run enclave as US envoy George Mitchell headed for talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
Israeli warplanes bombed smuggling tunnels on Gaza’s border with Egypt and militants in the coastal strip fired two rockets into the Jewish state.
The attacks, which did not injure anyone, further stoked tensions that have been rising since Tuesday when an Israeli soldier was killed in a militant bombing after 10 days of calm that followed a 22-day war.
Israeli officials, in the midst of an election campaign ahead of February 10 legislative polls, vowed that they would hit back hard at any militant strike and warned Gaza’s borders would remain closed if attacks continued.
"It is clear that we will react, but we need patience and we have no intentions of showing our plans to the enemy," Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai told army radio.
Speaking of Hamas leaders, he warned, "There is no need to worry, the turn of each of them will come."
Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel would not open Gaza’s border crossings and allow construction materials to enter the enclave to begin reconstruction efforts if rocketing continued.
"To start such works, you need cement, pipes, all sorts of construction materials. If Hamas leaders want to leave this area in the state that it’s in right now, they will have to answer to the residents."
Israel launched an offensive on Hamas on December 27 in response to rocket fire. More than 1,300 people died and large swathes of the impoverished territory were left in ruins.
On the Israeli side three civilians and 10 soldiers were killed.
The Gaza ceasefires began to unravel as Mitchell began his maiden tour of the region. He was appointed Middle East envoy by US President Barack Obama, tasked with "vigorously" resuscitating moribund peace talks.
The 75-year-old, who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland in 1998 with the Good Friday agreements, said it was vital to consolidate the Gaza ceasefire as he held talks with Israeli leaders on Wednesday.
"The prime minister and I discussed the critical importance to consolidate the ceasefire, including a cessation of hostilities, an end to smuggling and re-opening of the crossings based on 2005 agreements," Mitchell told reporters after meeting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
He was referring to agreements under which Gaza’s Rafah crossing with Egypt, the sole border that bypasses Israel, was to be operated by Egyptian and Palestinian Authority forces, along with European Union observers and Israeli monitoring via live cameras.
Olmert, however, said Israel would open Gaza’s borders — which it has kept sealed to all but essential humanitarian goods since the Islamists seized power there in June 2007 — only if militants released a soldier they snatched in June 2006.
"A permanent opening of the crossings will be linked to solving the issue of Gilad Shalit," a senior Israeli official quoted Olmert as telling the envoy.
He also said that forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, booted out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007, need to return to the coastal strip.
"It is important that following the successful operation, Hamas’s power in Gaza will decrease and that the Palestinian Authority will be able to get a foothold in the Gaza Strip," he said.
Ahead of his meeting with Mitchell, the Palestinian president hit out at Israel.
"Today we are convinced more than ever, especially after the aggression against Gaza, that Israel does not want peace and we are going to say so to all those who come to see us," he told reporters late Tuesday.