By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 28, 2009 10:22 AM
JERUSALEM, Jan. 28 -- The Obama administration's Middle East envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), arrived here Wednesday to push for a more solid cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, hours after Israel bombed smuggling tunnels in Gaza to retaliate for a Tuesday attack that killed an Israeli soldier.
The 10-day-old cease-fire seemed increasingly fragile, despite Mitchell's call for it to "be extended and consolidated."
Palestinian fighters detonated a bomb near the fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, killing the Israeli soldier. Israeli gunfire later killed a Palestinian farmer, according to Gaza medical officials, and Israeli officials claimed to have killed the planner of the bomb attack in an airstrike that took place before the tunnel bombardment.
Although there was no indication that either side planned to resume full-scale hostilities, the attacks marked the worst outbreak of violence since Israel and Hamas pledged to hold their fire after 22 days of war.
"The United States is committed to vigorously pursuing lasting peace and stability in the region," Mitchell said, according to wire service reports. Mitchell's first stop in the region was Cairo, where he met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He is scheduled to sit down with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and top security officials in Jerusalem before traveling to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
An Israeli soldier was severely wounded in the bomb blast, and two others were lightly injured, according to the Israel Defense Forces. The soldiers had been patrolling on the Israeli side of the fence at the time of the blast. There was no immediate assertion of responsibility, but Hamas praised the attack.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement that the attack on the soldiers was "a grave and unacceptable incident," and promised an Israeli response.
A 27-year-old Palestinian farmer was killed soon after the attack, Gaza medical officials said, but it was unclear if the two incidents were related. Late in the afternoon, a drone aircraft fired on a motorbike in the city of Khan Younis, in southern Gaza. Medical officials said the driver and another man were injured, while the Israeli military told Reuters that the strike killed the planner of the roadside bomb attack.
The Israeli military said it had closed the border crossings with Gaza after the attack on the soldiers, preventing 185 truckloads of humanitarian supplies and other goods from entering the coastal enclave. There was no immediate indication of when they would reopen.
Early Wednesday, Israel conducted airstrikes against smuggling tunnels in the Gaza town of Rafah that stretched under the border with Egypt, an army spokesman confirmed.
Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire starting Jan. 18 after a conflict that left 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. Hamas also agreed that day to temporarily stop firing rockets into Israel. But the Islamist movement has vowed to resume rocket fire if Israel does not fully open the border crossings, which are the lifeline to the outside world for Gaza's 1.5 million residents.
Egyptian mediators are talking with Israel and Hamas about extending the cease-fire by a year or more. Israel's central demands are that Hamas halt its rocket fire, release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and stop smuggling weapons into Gaza.
Israel is also pressuring Egypt to do more to halt the smuggling. But on Tuesday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit warned Britain, France and Germany not to send warships to patrol the waters off Gaza. The three European nations had made the offer to Israel and Egypt, saying the ships could be useful to efforts to halt seaborne smuggling. But Aboul Gheit said that any such effort would harm Europe's relations with the Arab world.
"In my discussions with European foreign ministers yesterday, I warned them and said: 'You must understand Arab and Muslim feelings,' " Aboul Gheit said at a news conference in Cairo on Tuesday. Egypt has also reacted coolly to suggestions that European troops be stationed on the border between Gaza and Egypt to monitor activity in smugglers' tunnels.
Mitchell, the newly appointed Middle East envoy, arrived in Cairo for talks Tuesday. He is scheduled to continue on to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
As Mitchell left Washington, President Obama said in an interview with the Arabic-language, Dubai-based satellite network al-Arabiya -- his first formal television interview since taking office -- that the time was ripe for negotiations toward a Middle East peace deal.
"Sending George Mitchell to the Middle East is fulfilling my campaign promise that we're not going to wait until the end of my administration to deal with Palestinian and Israeli peace. We're going to start now," Obama said.
Obama indicated that Mitchell would start by listening to both sides.
Continuing with a Bush administration policy of not talking to Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist organization, Mitchell is not expected to meet with any members of the movement. Instead, he is expected to focus on talks with the more moderate Palestinian Authority, which holds sway in the West Bank but was ousted from Gaza by Hamas forces in June 2007.
Special correspondent Islam Abdel Kareem in Gaza City contributed to this report.