Israel Continues Effort to Strengthen Abbas

Israeli media report that Egypt has transferred weapons through Israel to police forces in Gaza controlled by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It's part of an Israeli decision to strengthen Abbas as he moves to confront Hamas, the Islamist radical party in control of the Palestinian legislature.

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Israeli media report that an arms shipment from Egypt was transferred through Israel to the security forces of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza. It's part of an Israeli decision to strengthen Abbas as he moves to confront the ruling Islamist Hamas movement. But officials of Abbas's own Fatah party are denying any arms have been transferred.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Both state-run Israel radio and the Haaretz newspaper reported that the 2000 AK-47 rifles, 20,000 magazines and two million rounds of ammunition were transferred from Egypt to Gaza via Israel. The newspaper said the decision to allow the transfer of the guns was made in last weekend's meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas in Jerusalem.

That summit, the first substantive meeting between the two leaders, is just part of a flurry of diplomatic activity that raised hopes for a renewal of Israeli/Palestinian peace talks. Olmert goes to Sharmashick(ph) next week to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Yesterday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit was in Jerusalem meeting Olmert. In a news conference he said an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas-linked gunmen six months ago is alive and he believes he will be released. Egypt has been mediating an exchange of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for the soldier.

Aboul Gheit said Egypt is not giving up on an Israeli/Palestinian peace deal.

Mr. AHMED ABOUL GHEIT (Egyptian Foreign Minister): The objective is to keep pushing for a viable peace process, building trust between the Israelis and the Palestinians, trying to achieve a breakthrough in the relationship.

GRADSTEIN: At the same news conference, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Israel is committed to a Palestinian state.

Ms. TZIPI LIVNI (Israeli Foreign Minister): And we show division when it comes to this conflict of two states for two people. We show the understanding that stagnation is not the right policy.

GRADSTEIN: The right policy, say Israeli officials, is to strengthen Abbas as he moves to challenge the ruling Hamas movement, which won elections a year ago. Abbas recently called for new elections, a move Hamas opposes.

For the past month, and despite growing public anger, Israel has not responded to almost daily Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza, most of it by the Islamic Jihad movement. But on Tuesday, two 14-year-old boys were badly wounded in a rocket attack.

Yesterday, Israeli officials announced that Israel will hit back. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman): The government has allowed in a very, very careful and surgical way for defensive purposes only. If we see a group of people launching a rocket trying to kill Israeli civilians, they are a legitimate target. And I hope the Palestinian leadership, those moderates on the Palestinian side, understand this is a necessity. You cannot have a situation where your civilian population is open just to attack after attack like ducks in a shooting gallery.

GRADSTEIN: Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad warned a hard-won ceasefire could collapse if Israel resumes attacks in Gaza.

Mr. GHAZI HAMAD (Hamas Spokesman): We still believe that this agreement is alive and both sides should respect this agreement because it is interest for our people.

GRADSTEIN: Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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