- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 30, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank — As fighting between Israel and Hezbollah continues to rage in Lebanon and northern Israel, Palestinians find themselves at the margins of a regional conflict that has shifted attention away from their six-year uprising for the first time.

The war between Israel with the radical Shi’ite Hezbollah also has highlighted the Hezbollah-Iran alliance as a major Middle East flash point that has overshadowed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To the chagrin of many Palestinians, a resolution to the Gaza clashes often is linked to a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hezbollah.

“The Palestinians have to prove that they are not in the same basket and that they should not be punished for the Lebanese cause,” said Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based political analyst.

“We have our own political agenda. We need a political solution. What is going on in Lebanon is different. Hezbollah has no political agenda. Lebanon is not occupied by Israel.”

Israeli tanks and armored troop carriers entered the northern Gaza Strip again yesterday after a series of air strikes on a suspected weapons factory and border tunnel, the Reuters news agency reported.

No casualties were reported in the early morning air strikes, part of Israel’s monthlong assault on Gaza to recover a captured soldier and end cross-border rocket attacks.

At least 150 Palestinians, about half of them gunmen, have been killed in the offensive.

Also yesterday, Israeli troops killed two Islamic Jihad militants, including the man the group described as the leader of its militant wing in the West Bank city of Nablus, the Associated Press reported.

Palestinians say the fighting in Lebanon has given Israel a free hand for incursions into the Gaza Strip that have left dozens of civilians dead.

With Israel fighting on two fronts, the economic crisis from an international boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority has worsened, as crossings into Gaza remain shut and food shortages become chronic.

“There have been minutes and days when the Palestinian issue wasn’t on the radar,’ said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator and aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “But it’s more than that. We’re the forgotten war.”

The Hezbollah-Israel war has even distracted Palestinians. During a visit to Ramallah last week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, several hundred Palestinian demonstrators chanted, “Rice Out. Hezbollah In.”

Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers from the Lebanon border on July 12, two weeks after Hamas militants captured an Israeli soldier.

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