January 25, 2009 / 11:06 AM / 10 years ago

Obama envoy expected in Middle East next week

GAZA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama plans to dispatch his Middle East envoy to the region next week, in a quick start to the new administration’s efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and shore up a shaky Gaza truce.

Friends of 21-year-old Palestinian fisherman Mohammed Jarboe carry his body to his home at Shati refugee camp in Gaza, January 25, 2009. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

Obama has taken the Middle East by surprise with the speed of his diplomatic activism.

Western, Arab and Israeli diplomats said his envoy, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, plans to meet leaders in Egypt, Israel, the occupied West Bank and Jordan, but they ruled out direct contacts with Hamas Islamists who rule the Gaza Strip.

A Western diplomat said Mitchell was likely to go to Saudi Arabia but said Syria was not now on his schedule.

The trip is expected to last roughly a week and will likely include a stop in Saudi Arabia but not Syria, one diplomat said.

Israel’s refusal to fully lift its blockade of the coastal enclave following its devastating 22-day offensive, which killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, has thrown into doubt the future of the ceasefire and post-war reconstruction.

A Palestinian official, who is close to the truce talks taking place in Cairo, said both Israel and Hamas would hold their fire as long as Egyptian mediation continued.

But little tangible progress has been made thus far into turning the fragile ceasefire into something more lasting, and diplomats said time was running out. A February 10 Israeli election appears likely to bring to power the right-wing Likud party, which is critical of U.S.-backed peace moves.

Israel is determined to deny Hamas any political gains from the conflict and believes its restrictions at the border crossings will give it leverage in talks to free Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants in a 2006 raid.

Hamas, meanwhile, has cemented its hold on the Gaza Strip and its 1.5 million residents, casting doubt on assertions by Israeli leaders that the group has been severely weakened during the 22-day offensive.

Schools and the few government ministries not destroyed in the bombing, reopened on Saturday. “Good morning! Still alive?” excited teenage girls asked each other at the start of classes at Beach Preparatory School in Gaza city.

Hamas plans to start distributing up to 4,000 euros ($5,000) in cash to families hard hit by Israel’s offensive.

Hebah Jarboe (C), sister of 21-year-old Palestinian fisherman Mohammed Jarboe, mourns with relatives during her brother's funeral at Shati refugee camp in Gaza, January 25, 2009. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

TUNNELS

Despite Western backing, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas’s rival, has been prevented by Israel from bringing cash into Gaza that would allow his Palestinian Authority to pay its workers and support those in need.

Israel said it halted the fighting in the Gaza Strip after securing commitments from the United States, European powers and Egypt to crack down on Hamas arms smuggling.

France said on Friday it was sending a frigate to patrol international waters off the Gaza coast, but few other concrete measures have been announced. “We have to wait and see. It will be tested by the results,” a senior Israeli official said.

Israel believes its air strikes destroyed at least 80 percent of the smuggling tunnels under Gaza’s border with Egypt. They have been used by Hamas and ordinary Palestinians to bring in arms and commercial goods, bypassing Israel’s blockade.

Senior Israeli defense official Amos Gilad said his government was more concerned about regulating the items being smuggled into Gaza than destroying the tunnels themselves.

“The tunnel is not the problem. It’s what they are bringing through it,” Gilad told Israel’s Channel 2 television. “If the smugglers knew the cost of smuggling Iranian rockets is 20 years in an Egyptian prison, they would beware.”

The Obama administration has met with skepticism from Hamas, which won a 2006 Palestinian ballot only to be shunned by the West for refusing to renounce violence and recognize Israel. The isolation deepened when Hamas routed Abbas’s secular Fatah to take over Gaza 18 months later.

Slideshow (5 Images)

While Obama said Gaza’s border crossings should be reopened to both humanitarian and commercial goods, he called for a “monitoring regime” that includes Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.

Hamas expressed a willingness to accept the presence of members of Abbas’s presidential guard at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, the Palestinians’ only window to the outside world that does not go through Israel.

But Hamas wants to choose which members of the presidential guard will be stationed there, a non-starter for Israel.

Israeli officials said they were confident Obama and his envoy would shun Hamas. That policy was spearheaded by former President George W. Bush, whom critics accused of ignoring the conflict for too long.

“There’s a narrow initial focus to the mission,” a Western diplomat said, referring to Gaza. But the diplomat added the visit would also allow Mitchell to “take the temperature” for broader peacemaking.

The diplomat said the visit illustrated Obama’s determination to show “active engagement” right from the start of his presidency.

U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood had no comment on Mitchell’s travel plans.

Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, and Douglas Hamilton and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Katie Nguyen

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