March 2, 2008 / 8:40 AM / 11 years ago

Abbas suspends talks but Israel presses on in Gaza

GAZA (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suspended peace negotiations with Israel on Sunday, demanding it end an offensive in the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 100 Palestinians, many of them civilians.

A Palestinian youth throws a stone towards Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Hebron, March 2, 2008. REUTERS/Nayef Hashlamoun

The United States, sponsor of the recently revived peace process, said talks must continue. It also called for an end to violence between Israel and Abbas’s Palestinian rivals in Gaza.

But Israel’s defence minister said the assault would go on.

Eight people died on Sunday, a day after 61 were killed in the bloodiest day for Palestinians since their 1980s uprising.

Israel says it is acting in self-defence to curb rocket attacks by the Hamas Islamists who run the enclave. It shrugged off a U.N. accusation that it had used “excessive force”.

Abbas ordered “the suspension of negotiations ... until the aggression is stopped”, a senior aide said at Abbas’s offices in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The president stopped short of declaring dead U.S.-brokered talks on Palestinian statehood that are opposed by Hamas, which seized control of Gaza from his secular Fatah movement in June.

He later spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and urged her to pressure Israel. A spokesman for Rice confirmed she would go ahead with a visit this week to Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He said: “We’re encouraging Israel to exercise caution to avoid the loss of innocent life.”

A White House spokesman said: “The violence needs to stop and the talks need to resume.”

Washington hopes talks for a deal to found a Palestinian state before President George W. Bush leaves office in January.

Olmert told a meeting of his cabinet: “Israel is interested in negotiations — but not at the price of giving up our right to protect Israeli citizens”.

AMBUSHES

Defence Minister Ehud Barak made clear the offensive would go on for now: “It is time for action. The operation continues. Hamas is responsible and will pay the price ... We will deploy force to change the situation — and we will change it.”

Five militants and three civilians including a toddler were killed on Sunday. It raised the Palestinian death toll in five days to 105, including nearly 60 civilians, doctors said.

Six Israeli civilians were wounded on Sunday when 25 rockets hit border towns. Two soldiers were also wounded, the army said.

On Saturday, two soldiers were killed and seven wounded.

Areas used by militants to launch rockets have seen fierce battles between hundreds of Israeli troops backed by tanks and Palestinian gunmen who have laid ambushes for advancing units.

Many of the civilian casualties have come when Israeli missiles fired by helicopters, jets and unmanned drones have hit buildings and homes that the army said were used by militants.

Anti-Israeli demonstrations erupted in the occupied West Bank. Israeli forces confronting stone-throwers near Hebron shot dead a 14-year-old boy wearing a Hamas headband, witnesses said.

There has been popular sympathy for Gazans in the Arab world but restraint from Arab governments wary of Hamas’s militancy and links to non-Arab Iran. However, Saudi Arabia on Sunday said its fellow U.S. ally Israel was emulating “Nazi war crimes”.

Egypt opened its border crossing with Gaza, which has been sealed off as part of Israel’s efforts to blockade Hamas, to let some 40 wounded Palestinians receive care in Egyptian hospitals.

BROADER OFFENSIVE

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Muslims to strike back and slammed Iran’s U.S. enemy for backing Israel.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accused Israel of using “excessive force” and demanded a halt to the assault.

The Security Council also met to urge an end to violence, while the European Union condemned Israel’s attacks as disproportionate and violating international law.

An Israeli was killed by a rocket launched from Gaza last week, the first since May. Hamas has said such salvoes would stop if Israel abandoned operations in the Gaza Strip and raids against militants in the occupied West Bank.

Abu Ubaida, who speaks for Hamas’s armed wing in Gaza, said: “We are capable of sustaining the fight and tolerating (attacks) beyond the expectations of the enemy.”

Olmert has been under pressure from some in his coalition to launch a broader offensive in the Gaza Strip, especially after militants began firing longer-range Katyusha rockets at Ashkelon, a city of 120,000. One hit a house there on Sunday.

Slideshow (8 Images)

But Israeli officials have spoken publicly of the heavy loss of life such a campaign could cause on both sides.

Yet there is public anger at the rocket fire: “I am ashamed to say they have succeeded in chasing us away,” said an Ashkelon resident named Avy, after a rocket smashed into his house.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Louis Charbonneau in New York and Ari Rabinovitch, Ori Lewis, Adam Entous and Brenda Gazzar in Jerusalem; Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem; Editing by Jon Boyle

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