Abbas warns Hamas of strong response if cease-fire broken
Abbas convenes Fatah central committee meeting to discuss shelling of Gaza settlements; Israel says will refrain from military response.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas vowed to take action against any future Palestinian cease-fire violations after Palestinians fired more than 40 mortar shells at the Gush Katif settlements in the Gaza Strip on Thursday.
Abbas convened an emergency meeting of his Fatah party's central committee to discuss the shelling, and at the end of the meeting, the committee announced a "general alert and state of emergency among the Palestinian security services and the Fatah movement to deal with the severe security violations, the attempts to undermine the Palestinian Authority's deterrent capabilities, and the attempts to undermine its international commitments.
"The PA will confront these provocations, these attempts to give Israel an excuse to evade its commitments at the Sharm al-Sheikh summit and to gamble dangerously with the future of the Palestinian people," the statement said.
Abbas was scheduled to arrive in Gaza on Friday to demand that the opposition groups respect the cease-fire truce with Israel.
Israel announced that it would refrain from any military response to the shelling.
The renewed violence in Gaza began with the incident on Wednesday in which IDF soldiers opened fire at four Palestinians who approached the Gazan settlement of Aztmona. They apparently hit one, a 20-year-old Hamas operative named Fathi Abu Jezer, and he died of his wounds later that evening.
In response, Hamas and the Fatah-affiliated Popular Resistance Committees began bombarding Gush Katif at about 2 A.M. Thursday, and the shelling continued intermittently throughout most of the day. In addition to the mortars, two Qassam rockets were also fired.
The shelling caused no casualties, but some houses and greenhouses were damaged. One of the shells hit a high-voltage cable, causing a blackout in the settlements from 4 A.M. to 9 A.M.
"This was one of the largest bombardments that has ever hit the Gush," a regional security official said, noting that more than 30 of the mortars had actually hit the settlements. Most, however, landed in open areas causing no damage.
Government and IDF sources said that Israel was not planning any military response to the shelling. Instead, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's adviser, Dov Weisglass, telephoned PA Minister Saeb Erekat to say that Israel viewed the attack "very gravely," while the head of the IDF's Southern Command, Major General Dan Harel, demanded immediate action to halt the shelling. Harel voiced his demand to Moussa Arafat, commander of the Palestinian security services in Gaza, during a previously scheduled meeting at the Erez Checkpoint Thursday night.
Weisglass also complained to U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer and Omar Suleiman, the head of Egypt's intelligence service.
The diplomatic-security cabinet also discussed the shelling, which Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz defined as a "test" for Abbas.
"We will not consent to a situation in which Qassams and mortars are fired at Israeli citizens," Mofaz said. "If the Palestinians won't fight terror, we will have to do it. But we still think there is a historic window of opportunity that we must not let slip."
Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Abbas's "days of grace are growing shorter. He must act immediately and strongly against those who fire mortars to prove that the PA is not a collection of armed gangs."
In Gush Katif, not surprisingly, the verbal reactions were far harsher. "How is it that after peace broke out, suddenly mortar shells are falling?" demanded Roni Bakshi of Neveh Dekalim cynically.
"This is only the beginning. It will get much worse," added one of his neighbors.
The IDF views the shelling, which was perpetrated primarily by Hamas, mainly as a challenge to Abbas by that organization. However, it seems that Hamas is also trying to maintain a "balance of deterrence" against Israel, in which the organization will respond to every dead Palestinian with heavy shelling. Hamas itself said that the shelling was a response to the two Palestinians killed on Wednesday and Thursday.
"The firing was self-defense against aggression," Hamas said in a statement. "We did not sign or agree to a cease-fire with anyone, and every violation by the Zionists will draw a response."
On the diplomatic front, Sharon announced Thursday the Israeli members of the joint Israeli-Palestinian committee on prisoner releases: Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Likud), Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra (Likud), Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) and Health Minister Dan Naveh (Likud). The committee will set criteria for releasing Palestinian prisoners, and will also discuss the PA's request that Israel free Palestinians convicted of murdering Israelis before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993.
Sharon also announced the establishment of an interministerial committee to deal with bilateral economic issues relating to the disengagement plan. Vice Premier Shimon Peres, the committee's chairman, and Minister Haim Ramon will meet with senior Palestinian officials in the coming days to discuss these issues.