- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2008

TEL AVIV | Israel faced growing international pressure Tuesday to halt an offensive in the Gaza Strip that has exposed divisions between pro-Western Arab regimes and Islamic political forces allied with Iran.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with top advisers but reportedly advocated pressing on with the four-day offensive even after the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — the so-called Quartet focusing on the Arab-Israeli dispute — issued a statement urging an immediate cease-fire. More than 380 people — all but four of them Palestinian — have died in the fighting. Most were Hamas fighters, but more than 60 were civilians, according to the United Nations.

A report on Ha’aretz newspaper’s Web site on Tuesday night quoted Mr. Olmert as saying, “The Gaza offensive has begun and will not end. … until our goals our reached, we are continuing according to the plan.”

The paper said Mr. Olmert’s statement was in response to reports that defense officials intended to recommend a 48-hour truce.

Israel appeared to be running out of obvious targets for air strikes in the crowded coastal enclave, home to 1.5 million Palestinians. On Tuesday, Israeli forces hit the Hamas government compound in Gaza City, weapons storage facilities and a network of underground tunnels near the border with Egypt used to smuggle commercial goods and weapons. Hamas responded with more than 45 mortars and rockets, which reached the southern Israeli city of Beersheba for the first time on Tuesday. It is the biggest Israeli city under attack to date.

Demonstrations across the Middle East and beyond — many targeting Egyptian embassies and consulates — reflect growing anger against pro-U.S. Arab governments that appear to have taken Israel’s side against the Islamist movement that has controlled Gaza since 2007.

Protesters broke into the Egyptian Consulate in the Yemeni city of Aden and trashed the interior, the Associated Press reported, throwing computers out windows and burning the Egyptian flag. Protests also erupted in Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Washington, outside the State Department.

(Corrected paragraph:) In Tehran, members of the Basij paramilitary group occupied the garden outside the British cultural center in north Tehran and raised a Palestinian flag. They also warned Egyptian officials to leave Tehran.

“This is being used by the political Islamic parties in the Arab world through mass protest movements,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former member of the Palestinian Authority Cabinet. “In addition to their attacks against the Arab regimes, including Egypt, they are expressing support for Hamas.”

Hamas has called on Arab governments to sever relations with Israel, but neither Egypt nor Jordan has recalled its ambassador.

Pressure is rising on Cairo to open its Rafah border crossing with Gaza to allow humanitarian supplies and commercial goods into the besieged enclave.

Egypt has resisted the calls. President Hosni Mubarak said Tuesday that he would agree to open the Rafah crossing only on the condition that it be operated by security officials from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, an unlikely prospect.

Though Egyptian officials have said they are upset with Israel’s attack on Gaza, they also have expressed frustration that Hamas refused to extend a six-month cease-fire with Israel and fired rockets last week on Israeli cities.

“We have worked relentlessly in order to preserve the informal truce between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza and to expedite permanent settlement negotiations … because it is self-evident that a truce was not sustainable long term without peace and that these permanent settlement negotiations would not succeed without a truce,” said Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the U.S. “Needless to say, we were extremely frustrated that the truce was broken and the negotiations on a permanent settlement were not fruitful.”

To Israel’s north, the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement has staged demonstrations against Israel. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah also has harshly criticized Egypt. However, Beirut-based Hezbollah specialist Nicholas Noe said the group has been careful not to raise expectations for an attack and might be waiting to see how Israel performs in the coming days.

Israeli media reported late Tuesday that the military would propose a temporary cease-fire for Israeli government consideration, but the timing of a pause remained unclear.

“What is required is a sustainable and a real solution that will entail freeing the civilian population of southern Israel from the threat of incoming rockets,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Mr. Olmert. Otherwise, “we’ll be back in a month or two months in a round of violence like today.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is planning to visit Israel in the new year in a bid to advance cease-fire talks.

“I don’t think [the Israelis] have any illusions that they can fight this for a month,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. He was referring to Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah, which wound up bolstering the Lebanese group.

The current fighting has stoked concerns about the future of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction was ejected from Gaza by Hamas. With the Palestinians headed toward political uncertainty after Mr. Abbas’ term ends on Jan. 9, the fighting could give Hamas the upper hand in popular opinion.

After having broken off diplomatic negotiations with Israel, Mr. Abbas will have a harder time making his case against violence and in favor of peace talks. Palestinian commentators have noted that the war strengthens both Hamas and Israel, while undermining Mr. Abbas.

“Abbas is one of the casualties of this war, politically,” Mr. Khatib said. “He’s in an awkward position. He’s doomed whatever he does.”

Barbara Slavin in Washington and Hadi Nili in Tehran contributed to this report.

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