Abbas sworn in and frozen out as Israel fights back

AGAINST a backdrop of continuing violence in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, extended his hand in peace to Israel during his inaugural speech yesterday, but failed to call on militants to cease attacks.

Abbas’s speech called for a mutual ceasefire but pointedly made no reference to Friday’s announcement by Israel that it would freeze all contact with the Palestinian Authority after militants killed six Israelis at the Karni checkpoint on the Gaza border late on Thursday.

The president was sworn in at the Muqata compound in Ramallah, the residence and office of his predecessor Yasser Arafat. He told gathered dignitaries: "We are seeking a mutual ceasefire to end this vicious cycle of violence."

Thursday’s Gaza attack was seen as a highly provocative move by Palestinian militants which included members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a group affiliated to Abbas’s Fatah party. Israel, which claimed the attack appeared to have been coordinated with local Palestinian security forces, has called on Abbas to arrest those responsible.

The events of the last few days very quickly dispelled the mood of optimism that had emerged in the region since Arafat’s death in November. The Israelis, along with the international community, had welcomed the election of Abbas, declaring him to be a likely partner for peace.

But as the swearing-in ceremony was held yesterday, another six Palestinians were killed by Israeli army fire in two separate incidents in the Gaza Strip. In one of them, in Gaza City, four Palestinians were killed, among them three gunmen, after Israeli troops moved into a neighbourhood. Twenty-four people were wounded, residents and hospital officials said.

In his speech, Abbas denounced all violence, adding that he condemned these actions "whether by the Israeli occupation forces or the reactions of some Palestinian factions".

"This does not help bring about the calm needed to enable a credible, serious peace process."

Abbas made it clear he wants to end the intifada so that talks can resume with Israel.

However, the 69-year-old leader has said in the past week that he will not use force against the militants - as Israel insists. Instead Abbas said he wished to negotiate a truce with militant groups such as Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade. "I say to the Israeli leadership and Israeli people: we are two peoples destined to live side by side and to share this land between us," he said in his speech.

"Let us start discussing the permanent status issues so we can end, once and for all, this historic conflict between us."

The veteran moderate said he was committed to the US-backed ‘road map’ but stressed it was "irrational to expect Palestinians to meet their commitments when the Israeli separation barrier was disrupting the lives of thousands of people and Israel continued its siege in the occupied territories".

He also said he was not interested in a temporary solution to the conflict, as advocated by Sharon, but instead wanted to work towards a final settlement. Abbas added: "The [Palestinian] Authority is ready to carry out its obligations according to the road map and to concentrate its forces to that end," Abbas said.

Sharon’s announcement to freeze contact with the Palestinian Authority angered Palestinian officials, who argued that cessation of ties would only worsen the situation.

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat told Scotland on Sunday last night: "Abu Mazen [Abbas] is not responsible as he was not sworn in at the time of the attack.

"What needs to be done to break this vicious cycle of violence is to resume negotiations and if Israel doesn’t do that, then it will be same old broken record of unilateralism, separation walls and everything will go down the drain."

Before the Karni attack, both sides were preparing to announce when they would meet to discuss security coordination in the lead-up to Israel’s planned pull-out from Gaza later this year as well as possible resumption of peace talks.

"This is a wrong decision and shows that Israel is trying to find any excuse to disrupt any serious efforts that lead to reviving the peace process and to achieving calm," the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, said.

But the Israelis are adamant that Abbas must do everything within his power to confront the militants.

Israeli vice-premier Shimon Peres said: "We lose lives and this is a terrible thing but the Palestinians are the ones who time and again lose the political and historic opportunity."

In response to the attack, Israel closed the Karni and Erez crossings, leaving Gaza largely isolated. Goods and humanitarian aid flow in to the fenced-in coastal strip through Karni, and the Erez crossing is used by aid workers, journalists, diplomats and some Palestinian workers with jobs in Israel.

The US lined up behind Israel and Secretary of State Colin Powell told Radio America: "The new president ... [has] got to get these terrorists under control."

The cessation of ties leaves Abbas in an extremely difficult position with his only option to appeal to the international community to solve the crisis by placing pressure on Israel to resume contact, according to Mouin Rabbani, a senior Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group.

"My prognosis is that won’t happen," Rabbani told Scotland on Sunday. "And if the conflict continues to escalate and the new government is seen to be incapable of delivering on its promises to restore law and order and negotiate a peace agreement with Israel, then the new leadership will be called to account several months down the track."

Israeli press has reported that Abbas is expected to try to co-opt militants by asking Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades gunmen, many of them former policemen, to return to their jobs, and by offering Hamas a say in decision making. Hamas has also said it will participate in legislative elections in July.

In the coming weeks, Abbas is to conduct Egyptian-brokered talks with the militants in Gaza and in Cairo, where Egypt will again suggest its proposal for a one-year suspension of attacks.

In the second of the incidents yesterday, an Israeli tank fired machine guns at Palestinians in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, near the border with Egypt. Two people were killed and 10 wounded, hospital officials said.