Netanyahu: 'Crossings shut until Schalit freed'

PM to Jones: Only humanitarian aid to enter Gaza; Barak authorizes transfer of cement to the Strip.

gaza trucks cool 248.88 (photo credit: IDF)
gaza trucks cool 248.88
(photo credit: IDF)
Israel will continue to keep the crossings to Gaza closed, except for humanitarian aid, until the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told US National Security Adviser Jim Jones on Wednesday. A decision by Defense Minister Ehud Barak earlier in the day to allow the shipment of hundreds of tons of cement into Gaza did not signal a change in policy on the crossings, sources in the Prime Minister's Office said. Rather, the cement was earmarked specifically for three humanitarian projects, including a sewage plant under construction in northern Gaza and a flour mill. In total, the IDF will allow in more than 300 tons of cement. Israel has been under mounting international pressure since Operation Cast Lead to allow cement and steel into Gaza to rebuild the area. The government has barred the entry of these materials out of concern they would be used to rebuild Hamas's terrorist infrastructure. Defense officials stressed that the supplies would be transferred directly to the United Nations and other international organizations and not to Hamas. Sources in Netanyahu's office said that while the prime minister wasn't directly involved in the decision, he supported it as a humanitarian measure. Israel will also allow in metal pipes and monthly shipments of cash to be used to pay government salaries. Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Amos Gilad gave his approval for the transfer several weeks ago. Sources in the Prime Minister's Office termed Netanyahu's meeting with Jones as "effective." The talks, according to Israeli officials, dealt with a wide range of issues, from the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, to Iran and bilateral strategic issues. The two first met with their staffs, and then had a private meeting. Taking part on the Israeli side were National Security Adviser Uzi Arad, Policy Planning Director Ron Dermer, special envoy on the Palestinian issue Yitzhak Molcho, and the new ambassador to the US, Michael Oren. Jones was accompanied by Dennis Ross, the US National Security Council's point man on the Middle East, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, NSC Middle East staffer Dan Shapiro, and Ambassador Richard Cunningham. Jones met separately earlier in the day with Barak and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. In a related development, Israel has decided not to not keep any delegate to next week's Fatah convention from being able to attend the parley in Bethlehem, including those coming from Syria and Lebanon, officials in the Prime Minister's Office confirmed. The convention, Fatah's first in 20 years, is to convene on Tuesday. There are more than 1,500 eligible delegates, nearly a third of them from the Gaza Strip and the rest from the West Bank and abroad, and they are slated to choose dozens of new leaders and vote on a fresh political program. Israeli and Palestinian officials have been exchanging messages about this for weeks at the highest levels, and the subject was also discussed with US envoy George Mitchell during his visit earlier this week. According to media reports, one of Fatah's founders - Muhammad Ghneim - arrived Wednesday from Tunisia. The Syrian delegates are expected to arrive on Thursday. These delegates will be entering the West Bank through the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan. This is not the first time that Israel has been pressed, and has allowed into the West Bank or Gaza, Palestinians living abroad to take part in various Fatah forums. One government source said Israel was keen on helping Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, wanted to see political progress in the West Bank, and did not want to be blamed for the failure of the conference. The convention is seen as crucial to Fatah's attempt to clean up its image, tainted by infighting and corruption, and present itself as an alternative to Hamas. On Monday, Hamas ruled that it would only let Fatah delegates go to the conference if Abbas released hundreds of Hamas detainees in the West Bank. Israel, according to sources in the Prime Minister's Office, would not bar delegates from Gaza from attending if Hamas allowed them to leave the Strip. Yaakov Katz and AP contributed to this report.