(photo credit: AP [file])
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday expressed fears that the latest tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border could deteriorate into a regional war.
Abbas, who was speaking to reporters here after meeting with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, said he urged Japan to exert pressure on Israel to halt its military strikes in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
"Expanding the Israeli military operations to include Lebanon raises our fears about a regional war," Abbas said. "This will endanger the interests of the international community and distance the prospects of peace and stability in the Middle East."
Abbas vowed to do his utmost to ease tensions between Israel on the one hand and Hamas and Hizbullah on the other. He also thanked Japan for its decision to provide $30 million in aid to the Palestinians to help keep basic services functioning.
Abbas and his aides are worried that the tensions along the Israeli-Lebanese border would divert attention from what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"Of course we are very worried because no one is paying attention to the ongoing Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip, where more than 24 Palestinians have been killed in the past two days," said a source close to Abbas. "We fear that Israel will take advantage of this to step up its pressure on the Palestinians."
A senior aide to Abbas also expressed fear that if Hamas and Hizbullah managed to force Israel to release Palestinian and Arab prisoners, that would undermine the "moderate camp" and boost the popularity of the two radical groups.
"All eyes are now turned toward Hamas and Hizbullah," he said. "If they succeed in forcing Israel to accept a prisoner swap, they will score many points on the Arab and Palestinian street. They will become the heroes of the Arab masses and the moderates will have to step aside."
Hamas, meanwhile, called on Hizbullah to coordinate with it any prisoner exchange with Israel. Hamas, which is holding kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, urged Hizbullah to negotiate a comprehensive deal that would lead to the release of all prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for Shalit and the two soldiers who were kidnapped on Wednesday morning.
A statement issued by Hamas in Gaza City said that Palestinians and Lebanese will continue their attempts to kidnap more Israelis as long as Israel continues to hold prisoners. The statement described Israel's response to Wednesday's attack in the North as "hysterical." The Hamas government hinted on Thursday that it was planning to expel European Union monitors from the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. PA Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar warned that the Hamas cabinet would reconsider the agreement signed last September regarding the border crossing, which has been closed ever since the abduction of Shalit nearly three weeks ago.
Zahar's threat came as hundreds of Palestinian travelers remained stranded on the Egyptian side of the border for the third week and after four of them died while waiting to return to the Gaza Strip. Zahar criticized the previous Fatah cabinet for signing the agreement over the Rafah border crossing, saying they had done an injustice to the Palestinians.
Also on Thursday, scores of gunmen tried to storm the border crossing to reopen it, but were repelled by PA security forces. The gunmen said they were trying to help the stranded passengers enter the Gaza Strip.
Zahar, who was speaking at the end of the weekly meeting of the Hamas cabinet in Gaza City, did not report to work on Thursday because his office had been completely destroyed in an Israeli air raid late Wednesday night.
Referring to the case of Shalit, Zahar said Hamas was interested in a prisoner swap with Israel and that's why it asked Egypt, Turkey and Qatar to act as mediators. He claimed that the mediation efforts had failed so far because of Israel's refusal to accept Hamas's conditions.