By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 29, 2009
JERUSALEM, Jan. 28 -- Arriving in Israel for his first visit as the Obama administration's Middle East envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell on Wednesday pushed for a more durable truce in the Gaza Strip, calling for a halt to weapons smuggling and for the territory's border crossings to be opened.
Speaking after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Mitchell said the United States is "committed to vigorously pursuing lasting peace and stability in the region."
But his visit came as the relative calm of the past week and a half was being tested by violence that threatened to reignite the 22-day war in Gaza. An Israeli soldier was killed by an explosion as he patrolled on Israel's side of the boundary with Gaza on Tuesday, an attack praised by Hamas. Israel responded with an airstrike on a Hamas fighter, wounding him. On Wednesday, Israeli jets bombed several smugglers' tunnels.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak canceled a planned visit to Washington and said in a statement Wednesday that he had told Mitchell that Israel would not tolerate attacks on its citizens. Israeli military officials did not rule out more strikes in Gaza. "If Hamas escalates, we are ready to respond in a harsh manner. We don't want to return to where we were a month ago," said Maj. Avital Leibovich, an Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman.
Egypt is attempting to mediate between Israel and Hamas, seeking a truce of a year or more. Mitchell was in Cairo on Wednesday morning meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and said afterward that it is "of critical importance that the cease-fire be extended and consolidated, and we support Egypt's continuing efforts in that regard."
The United States has been working with Egypt to hammer out a system for halting the smuggling of weapons across the Egypt-Gaza border, and Mitchell said Wednesday that an end to smuggling will be essential for any cease-fire. He also said that the border crossings, the lifeline to the outside world for 1.5 million Palestinians, need to be opened. Israel has largely kept its crossings with Gaza shut since Hamas took control of the coastal territory in June 2007.
Mitchell, who is best known for his work to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland, is scheduled to meet with officials of the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank on Thursday and to visit Jordan and Saudi Arabia later in his trip. He was not scheduled to meet with Hamas or visit Gaza.
Hamas foreign affairs adviser Ahmed Yousef called that a mistake, although he struck a conciliatory tone toward Mitchell and said he hoped that the Obama administration would be willing to engage with Hamas.
"I hope that with Mitchell's experience, his decency and his integrity, and with the desire of Mr. Obama to have a change in the region, we will be able to move things in a different direction," Yousef said, speaking in Gaza.