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The latest IDF operation in the Gaza Strip is yet another attempt by Israel to sabotage the peace process, Palestinian Authority officials said Tuesday.
The PA leadership was under mounting pressure to boycott Wednesday's final-status talks with Israel in protest against the IDF operation. The pressure was coming not only from Hamas and other radical groups, but even from some senior Fatah representatives.
The officials told The Jerusalem Post Israel "was making it very difficult" for the PA to sit at the negotiating table, arguing that the timing of the Gaza operation could not have been worse.
"This operation is a severe blow to the PA leadership and moderate Palestinians," said one official. "We believe that this is a deliberate attempt by Israel to foil Wednesday's negotiations with the Palestinians."
Sources in the Prime Minister's Office dismissed Palestinian threats to boycott the talks because of the IDF's actions in Gaza, saying that Hamas wanted to torpedo the Annapolis process and would use any excuse to do so. Earlier this week, there were calls to boycott the talks because of tenders to build new housing units in Jerusalem's Har Homa neighborhood.
Asked, however, whether it was wise for Israel to initiate a military action in Gaza on the eve of the talks, one senior source in the PMO said problems could always be found with timing, and there had been those who said Israel should not take action before the Annapolis meeting last month, or in its immediate aftermath.
"You can't say that we don't have the right to act against terrorists from Gaza because of one event or another," the source said. "If we don't act, then we'll wake up one day in the future and face a much bigger problem in Gaza that will be even more difficult to deal with."
Senior PA officials contacted US and EU officials and urged them to intervene to stop Israel's military operation. The officials threatened to boycott final-status talks with Israel on the pretext that Palestinian negotiators would not be able to meet with their Israeli counterparts "while Palestinians were being killed in the Gaza Strip."
Nabil Abu Rudaineh, spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the IDF operation as a "despicable crime." The latest Israeli measures, he said, were aimed at thwarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations even before they started.
"The Israeli policy of assassinations, incursions and settlement construction casts doubts on Israel's true intentions," he added. "It's impossible to conduct negotiations while Israel is assassinating and confiscating lands. Israel is deliberately placing obstacles on the path to peace."
Two Fatah legislators, Majed Abu Shamaleh and Ashraf Juma'ah, appealed to Abbas to suspend all contacts with Israel in protest against the IDF's "unjustified" offensive.
They claimed the operation was also designed to weaken Abbas's leadership on the eve of the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Sources in the Prime Minister's Office, meanwhile, said the Israeli side was going into the talks with a sober attitude and "without any illusions as to the challenges ahead." The official said that Israel was not running away from the "core issues," and there was full realization of the "sensitivity, complexity and challenges involved."
The sources said initial bilateral meetings would deal with procedures and negotiating mechanisms.
"There are going to be crises and ups and downs," the official said. "It will demand tenacity and commitment to the process."
The sources said that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas would be holding periodic meetings parallel to the working groups, so that when problems arise in the negotiations, "they can be kicked upstairs."
Hamas has also called on Abbas to boycott the talks and cut off his ties with Israel. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the IDF operation was aimed at sending a message to Abbas and all Arabs who called for a peaceful settlement with Israel.
"The Israeli massacres are intended to deliver a message to Abbas, who had condemned the Palestinian resistance as a form of terrorism," he said. "How come Abbas hasn't condemned the Israeli operation yet? Anyone who meets with Israelis while these massacres are being perpetrated against our people is a murderer."
Osama Hamdan, Hamas's representative in Lebanon, described Abbas and his negotiators as pawns in the hands of Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and US President George W. Bush. He said the military campaign was the direct result of Palestinian "concessions" to Israel and vowed to "teach Israel an unforgettable lesson."
Another Hamas official, Fawzi Barhoum, claimed that the attack was one of the results of the Annapolis conference. He, too, urged Abbas to suspend talks with Israel. "All the conferences whose goal is to wipe out Hamas are doomed to failure," he said.
In another development, Hamas denied a report in a London-based newspaper that said the group had offered to hand Fatah-controlled institutions in the Gaza Strip back to Abbas.
The report in the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat quoted a top Hamas official in the West Bank, Hasan Abu Qwaik, as saying that Hamas had made the offer during a recent visit to Saudi Arabia by the movement's leader, Khaled Mashaal.
But Qwaik issued a statement Tuesday in which he denied the report.
Fatah officials said reports about an imminent reconciliation with Hamas were "fully exaggerated." They said the reports were coming mostly from Hamas officials who were trying to test the waters before engaging in serious negotiations with Fatah.
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