LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
The U.N. Security Council has condemned the escalation of fighting in southern Israel and Gaza. In a statement, it urged the Israelis and Palestinians to immediately cease all acts of violence.
Here's Russia's Ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin:
Ambassador VITALY CHURKIN (Russia's Ambassador to the United Nations): These acts must not be allowed to deter the political process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in establishing two states, Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security.
HANSEN: The statement by the Security Council follows an Israeli offensive against Palestinian militants in Gaza on Saturday, which killed at least 54 people. It was the deadliest day of fighting in more than a year. Israel says it is responding to Palestinian militants firing rockets into southern Israel.
Joining us from Jerusalem is Steven Erlanger of the New York Times. Welcome back to the program, Steven.
Mr. STEVEN ERLANGER (Jerusalem Bureau Chief, New York Times): Thanks.
HANSEN: Describe the situation now in Gaza. Is the fighting continuing?
Mr. ERLANGER: It is continuing. It's at a slower pace. Quite a lot of it is from the air. The Israelis bombed the ousted Gazan prime minister of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh's, office headquarters. It was largely empty. When things like this happen, Hamas leaders stay underground. But it was a sign, a sort of threat, from the Israelis that they may go after Hamas political leadership and not leave them immune on the theory that they're ordering the rocket attacks.
And there is fighting on the ground. What's beginning to happen is some unrest in the West Bank, which has been relatively quiet. But the sights on televisions, particularly of the civilian casualties, from Saturday and in fact Thursday also, have rose temperatures a great deal.
And the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he is freezing all contacts with Israel over the Gaza operation.
HANSEN: Really. I mean, Mahmoud Abbas and Israel have been in negotiations under pressure from the United States. So you're saying that this is affecting the willingness to continue talks.
Mr. ERLANGER: Absolutely. You know, Mahmoud Abbas, who is very angry with Hamas and feels they carried a coup against his authority in Gaza last June, would, I'm sure, like nothing more than to see Hamas defeated and ousted in Gaza. But he is the president of the Palestinian people, and Palestinian people are fighting, and he simply politically can't stand by and do nothing.
To freeze talks is not a big deal but it is a sign of displeasure. And with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice coming in a couple of days it could be that we have another lull. But the way things happen here things do get out of control. And the Israeli government is promising that they're not going to stop.
They also say this isn't the big encourager, this isn't the big offensive, which it clearly isn't. But when Hamas started firing longer range manufactured Katyusha-style missiles into Ashqelon last week, a city of 120,000, that crossed a new strategic line for the Israelis and they felt they had to do something militarily to try to stop it.
HANSEN: What has the Israeli government said about the continuing negotiations, you know, knowing now that Abbas wants to freeze the talks for now?
Mr. ERLANGER: They haven't responded yet that I know of. I mean, Israel will always say - there's this famous phrase of Yutuckra(ph) being that we will negotiate as if there were no terror, inside terrorists, as if there were no negotiations. It's (unintelligible) line and nobody ever keeps to it but that's generally their line.
So, you know, but the negotiations aren't going very far very fast as far as anyone can tell. And, you know, I wouldn't be surprised if people around Condoleezza Rice are wondering whether to cancel this visit. I suspect they won't cancel it but it's a rather inauspicious time and the new fighting is putting a block on the effort to get peace talks moving with the time running out. I mean, the end of the year is coming, Mahmoud Abbas, his term as president of the Palestinian authority is over next January and just around the time George Bush's term is over.
So the clock is running and this is not helping the peace part of this conversation.
HANSEN: Steven, I wondered just in terms of an exit interview for you because you've been covering this story in the Middle East for such a long time. You're about to move to Paris to be the Paris bureau chief for the New York Times. What are you impressions during the time that you've been there? I mean, certainly things have gone up and down.
Mr. ERLANGER: Well, they do. You know, my impressions are complicated. And, you know, I find the story enthralling but exhausting. And we go through, you know, cycles of real pain like now, which tend to concentrate everyone's minds. I think what we're seeing, you know, in the time - it's in three years and eight months - you know, we see Gaza having turned into something new in the world, which is a sort of semi-occupied, semi-space run by a group certainly the United States and Israel and the European Union consider to be terrorists who are shooting rockets at the very state.
Israel, which is obligated to provide Gaza with food, electricity, water and other supplies and no one knows quite what to do about it. Israel doesn't want to reoccupy Gaza and it doesn't want Hamas to have free reign. It doesn't want Hamas to have the space and time to build and army in Gaza akin to Hezbollah's army in southern Lebanon.
And so, you know, the feeling is one of a cycle that is now on a downward trend. I don't see it coming to a defining moment any time soon.
HANSEN: Steven Erlanger of the New York Times joined us from Jerusalem.
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