Palestinian President Suspends Peace Talks

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 3, 2008

RAMALLAH, West Bank, March 2 -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday suspended peace talks with Israel following a spasm of violence in the Gaza Strip that has left more than 100 Palestinians dead since Wednesday as Hamas has continued its campaign of rocket strikes.

Under heavy domestic pressure and with protests across the West Bank, Abbas said the talks could not proceed during an Israeli offensive that has enraged Palestinians. He did not close the door on negotiations, having said frequently that he hopes the U.S.-backed talks will result in a comprehensive agreement by year's end. But he said resumption of the talks hinged on an end to Israel's "criminal war on the Palestinian people."

Israel gave no indication Sunday that it planned to halt its operations, even with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her way to the region this week and with international condemnation pouring in.

"With all due respect, nothing will prevent us from continuing operations to protect our citizens," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested that Israeli operations would intensify, saying, "We will continue the activity with all our strength. And we need to prepare for escalation, because the big ground operation is real and tangible."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel called Abbas's decision to suspend the talks "a mistake" and said the Palestinians had agreed at the Annapolis peace conference late last year "to continue the discussions at the same time that we continue our war on terrorism."

"We hope they will reconsider and renew the negotiations shortly," Mekel said.

The attacks by Israeli ground troops, helicopters and tanks have been aimed at stopping Hamas from launching rockets into southern Israel. But the rocket strikes have continued -- 33 were recorded Sunday -- and so have Palestinian deaths.

The violence Sunday was considerably less intense than on Saturday, when 60 Palestinians were killed -- about half of them civilians. At least seven Palestinians were killed Sunday as Israel continued its raids in northern Gaza.

Four Israeli soldiers were slightly injured Sunday, bringing the five-day military casualty total to two killed and 11 wounded. During the same period, 240 rocket and mortar strikes have resulted in the death of one Israeli civilian and injuries to more than a dozen, the military said.

The streets of normally bustling Gaza City were largely empty and children throughout the strip stayed home Sunday, a school day here.

At hospitals, doctors scrambled to treat hundreds of wounded patients amid a shortage of beds and medicine. Gaza has suffered for months under a strict Israeli-imposed economic embargo, and residents said the latest violence further strained infrastructure that is already near the breaking point. Egypt on Sunday opened its border with Gaza to dozens of injured Palestinians, but many were too badly wounded to make the journey.

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