|Israelis rebuff Palestinian offer of mutual cease-fire
|Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya said Friday that militant factions had agreed to halt rocket fire if Israel reciprocates by stopping its military offensives but the Jewish state rejected the proposal. Later Israeli forces shot dead a 10-year old boy and two other Palestinians.
On the political front, the Palestinian foreign minister accused President Mahmoud Abbas for delaying the formation of a national unity government as Hamas' political leader, Khaled Meshaal, held talks with Egyptian officials on the deadlock.
Haniyya said the armed factions reached the agreement a day earlier, adding that the "ball now is in the Israeli court."
"[Israel] must stop its aggression and escalation against the Palestinian people," he said. "Then there will be no problem according to what the factions agreed in their last meeting."
Haniyya was scheduled to meet faction leaders again later Friday, and the sides hoped to draw up a written truce proposal, officials said.
A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Ismail Radwan, watered down Haniyya's talk of a cease-fire, saying the factions had agreed to "alter their strategies of resistance" if Israel halted fire.
Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, described the offer to trade a partial cease-fire for a suspension of all Israeli military operations in Palestinian territories as "ludicrous" and "a media stunt."
"Israel has always aspired to an end to violence and we count on a change of attitude from the Palestinians and primarily Hamas in order to give development a priority in the Gaza Strip instead of continued attacks," she added.
Abbas recently got involved in efforts to reach a cease-fire, and will hopefully come up with a more serious proposal that Israel could respond to, Eisin said.
"Israel wants calm in the Gaza Strip," Eisin said. "We'll see if there are more concrete proposals" forthcoming.
Independent MP Mustafa Barghouti said the Israeli reaction was "very discouraging."
"Israel is responsible for the cycle of violence. Each time Palestinians want an end of violence, Israel refuses. Israel is the one that does not want to stop the cycle of violence," he told AFP in Gaza City.
Palestinian hospital officials said the boy was shot dead east of the town of Beit Lahiya. Hamas said the other dead Palestinian was a militant and cameraman from the faction's armed wing who filmed Hamas fighters in action. A third Palestinian died Friday of wounds sustained in earlier violence.
Palestinians fired at least two rockets at Israeli towns bordering the Gaza Strip.
Haniyya said Palestinians would not shoulder the responsibility of the truce.
The fresh fighting coincides with a visit to Gaza by Abbas, who has been meeting Haniyya to try to revive talks on forging a unity government.
The Damascus-based Meshaal met Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman for more than two hours on Thursday evening, Egypt's official Middle East News Agency (MENA) said. It said a deal was being blocked over the division of portfolios between Hamas and Fatah.
"Hamas is insisting on keeping the Interior Ministry portfolio, while Fatah wants to take it back," a Palestinian source close to the talks told AFP.
The source also said there were obstacles hampering efforts to reach a deal for Israel to free Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit.
"Israel wants to reduce as much as possible the number of Palestinians to be exchanged for Shalit, while we want to secure the release of as many as possible," the source said, without giving any figures.
"There are still a lot of efforts," concerning the prisoner-exchange negotiations, said Moussa Abu Marzouk, Meshaal's deputy, in a telephone interview in Damascus.
But no deal has been reached, he said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, meanwhile, repeated his support for Palestinian unity, warning also against the costs of infighting.
"Egypt is deploying all its efforts to help the Palestinian brothers toward reconciliation, to get out of the current situation and [set up] a government of national unity," MENA quoted Mubarak as saying Friday.
But division among the Palestinians remained clear, with Hamas accusing Abbas of imposing what it called unacceptable conditions for a unity cabinet. Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahhar was especially critical
"There was a regression in Fatah and Abbas' stance" from its previous positions, Zahhar said in Syria after meeting with hard-line Palestinian factions based there.
The Daily Star