Peace talks suspended for Gaza bombing

March 2, 2008 1:39:02 PM PST
Israel sent missiles slamming into the office of Gaza's Hamas prime minister Sunday, pressing on with an offensive that has killed nearly 70 Palestinians in two days. The moderate Palestinian president suspended peace talks with Israel.

At least 54 Palestinians, roughly half of them civilians, were killed in Gaza fighting Saturday, the deadliest day in more than seven years of violence, Palestinian medical officials said. Another 14 Palestinians, one of them a 21-month-old girl, were killed or found dead Sunday. Two Israeli soldiers were killed on Saturday.

Since the latest bout of fighting erupted on Wednesday, more than 100 Palestinians have been killed, according to an AP tally based on Palestinian medical officials and militant groups.

"We are following the aggression against our people in Gaza," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters. "I've conducted contacts with various leaders, with the Security Council, with the EU and with Arab leaders to work to stop this aggression," he said.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said peace talks with Israel had been halted.

"For the time being, the negotiations are suspended because we have so many funerals," he said. It was unclear when the talks, relaunched last November at a U.S.-hosted summit, would resume.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to visit this week to try to spur progress in peace talks. Instead, she will likely spend her visit trying to put out the latest fire.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's office was empty at the time of Sunday's pre-dawn airstrike. But the raid was seen as a tough message to the Hamas leadership, which Israel holds responsible for repeated rocket barrages launched from Gaza.

Haniyeh spoke to leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, asking them "to stop this aggression," said government spokesman Taher Nunu. He also called for reconciliation talks with Fatah, the rival Palestinian faction headed by Abbas and ousted from Gaza by Hamas last June.

Israel's response to incessant Palestinian rocket fire at southern Israeli communities drew hard international condemnation. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon accused Israel of "disproportionate and excessive use of force."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected the criticism and vowed to press on with the Gaza offensive.

"With all due respect, nothing will prevent us from continuing operations to protect our citizens," he told his Cabinet.

Olmert's defense minister, Ehud Barak, said an even broader Gaza operation was in the cards, aimed at crushing militant rocket squads but also to "weaken the Hamas rule, in the right circumstances, even to bring it down."

Israel regularly clashes with Gaza rocket squads, but intensified its operations after militants fired salvos last week into Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 closer to Israel's heartland than previous targets. By striking Ashkelon, some 11 miles north of Gaza, Hamas added pressure on Israeli leaders to exact a high price for the increasing sense of insecurity felt in southern Israel.

The onslaught failed however to stop rockets from battering southern Israel. Nine were fired at southern Israel by midday Sunday, including one that struck a house in the rocket-scarred town of Sderot less than a mile from Gaza, the military said. One rocket lightly wounded four Sderot residents, Israeli rescue services said.

About 50 rockets and mortars were fired Saturday, injuring six Israelis.

Haniyeh's office was one of about a dozen targets Israeli aircraft and ground troops struck before dawn.

Overnight, a 14-year-old Palestinian girl and five militants died of their wounds, and six Palestinians were killed in Israeli raids, including the baby girl who died from shrapnel wounds, Palestinian medical officials said.

The bodies of two women also were unearthed from the rubble of an earlier Israeli airstrike.

Since the latest round of fighting erupted Wednesday, at least half of those killed were militants, according to Hamas and medical officials. Gaza health officials said about 200 people have been wounded, 14 of them critically.

The normally bustling streets of Gaza City were eerily empty Sunday. Schools and universities were closed. The sound of verses from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, pouring forth from mosque loudspeakers mingled with the roar of Israeli warplanes and unmanned drones in the sky.

Hamas blocked off roads to government buildings and security installations to protect civilians from possible Israeli strikes.

Hundreds gathered outside Gaza hospitals waiting for bodies to be brought out of morgues for burial. Many, like schoolteacher Tawfek Shaban, a 44-year-old father of five, were holding small radios, listening to the news.

"Shame on the Arabs, shame on the Muslims, shame on humanity ... When they will act to stop Israel?" Shaban asked. "There is no safe place in Gaza."

The Saturday toll was by far the highest since the second Palestinian uprising erupted in late 2000.

Abbas, who leads a rival government in the West Bank, suspended peace talks with Israel, his office said. On Saturday, Palestinian leaders from both Hamas and Fatah called Israel's assault a "holocaust" and "genocide."

In a symbolic move, Abbas donated blood to Gaza residents at his West Bank office.

Hamas remained defiant and threatened to retaliate.

"The Zionists will not enjoy security in ... all the colonies around Gaza as long as their crimes continue," said Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas' military wing.

Olmert said "attacking Hamas strengthens the chance for peace."

"I'm sure that beyond certain statements, the Palestinian leadership, the one with whom we want to achieve peace, also understands that," he said.

Olmert and Abbas have set a year-end target for reaching an accord.

Abbas has ruled from the West Bank since his Hamas rivals violently seized control of Gaza last June. But the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza has threatened to unleash a backlash against him in the West Bank.

In the West Bank city of Hebron, Israeli troops shot and killed a 14-year-old Palestinian boy after several hundred youths threw stones and bottles at an Israeli checkpoint in the city center to protest the killings in Gaza, according to Palestinian medical officials.

In Ramallah, home to Abbas' government, thousands of schoolchildren demonstrated against Israel. Some accused Abbas of being an Israeli agent, and protesters threw stones and cars, burned tires and forced shopkeepers to close their stores.