Mitchell warns of setbacks ahead in Mideast talks
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy said on Friday the new administration's push for Israeli-Palestinian peace after the war in the Gaza Strip faced substantial hurdles, and he predicted further setbacks.
The somber assessment by former Senator George Mitchell followed two days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders about shoring up a shaky ceasefire that ended Israel's 22-day offensive against Gaza's Hamas Islamists rulers.
Mitchell said consolidating the truce and "addressing immediately the humanitarian needs" of Gaza's 1.5 million residents were the Obama administration's priorities.
"Then we must move forward," he added, apparently referring to stalled peace talks that have now been derailed by the war.
In keeping with long-standing U.S. policy, Mitchell did not meet during his visit with Hamas, which won a 2006 Palestinian election and is shunned as a "terrorist" organization by Western powers for refusing to renounce violence and recognize Israel.
Israel tightened its blockade of the Gaza Strip after Hamas routed secular Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and seized control of the enclave in June 2007.
"The tragic violence in Gaza and in southern Israel offers a sobering reminder of the very serious and difficult challenges and, unfortunately, the setbacks that will come," Mitchell told reporters after touring a U.N. warehouse in Arab East Jerusalem packed with aid for Gaza's residents.
But he added: "The United States remains committed to actively and aggressively seeking a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as between Israel and its other Arab neighbors."
MORE AID, MORE TRADE
At the U.N. warehouse, Mitchell announced that Obama had approved $20 million in new assistance for Gaza. The money, on top of nearly $40 million in ongoing U.S. support, will be used to provide food, medicine and shelters, officials said.
Israel's goal in launching its offensive on December 27 was to force Hamas to stop firing rockets at southern Israeli towns.
Some 1,300 Palestinians were killed, including an estimated 700 civilians, according to a Gaza human rights group. More than 5,000 Palestinians were wounded and thousands made homeless.
Thirteen Israelis -- 10 soldiers and three civilians hit by Hamas rockets -- were killed before the two sides called a halt to the fighting on January 18.
Tensions remain high. An Israeli soldier was killed in a militant attack this week, and Israel's air force retaliated with a strike that wounded 10. But Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he believed the de facto truce would hold.
"Hamas sustained a very severe blow. Our deterrence has been greatly enhanced and, in our estimation, we are on course for calm which will, I believe, be realized," he told Army radio.
Israel has, however, refused to open Gaza's border crossings to supplies such as cement, steel and glass needed to repair badly damaged buildings and utilities -- materials it says Hamas can use to build more rockets and arms-smuggling tunnels.
Ahead of a February 10 election, Israeli leaders have said a full reopening of any Gaza crossings would depend on Hamas freeing an Israeli soldier who was captured in 2006.
Mitchell urged opening the border to commercial goods.
But he said Abbas's Palestinian Authority must be involved -- a demand that has been a major sticking point in Egyptian-brokered talks over a long-term ceasefire with Hamas, which no longer recognizes Abbas as president.
U.S. officials played down the chances that Israel would open Gaza's border crossings broadly anytime soon.
They said Israel now allows about 100 to 120 trucks of aid to enter Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing. In addition, the equivalent of between 60 and 80 truckloads passes into the enclave through conveyor belts at the Karni crossing.
A U.S. official said Israel was also considering making changes at the Erez crossing in the northern Gaza Strip to allow in 25 to 50 additional trucks of aid per day, but he called that "the limit of what they're going to be able to accommodate."
That is still far short of the European Union's stated goal of 400 trucks of goods per day.
(Additional reporting by Douglas Hamilton and Ori Lewis; editing by Katie Nguyen)
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