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Israel strike on Gaza may have undercut potential cease-fire

Senior Palestinian official says Egypt was in advanced negotiations with Hamas to broker a halt to missile fire.

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An Israeli missile from the Iron Dome defence missile system is launched to intercept and destroy an incoming rocket from Gaza on Nov. 17. (Uriel Sinai/AFP/Getty Images)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian leaders may have been negotiating a truce earlier this week that would have halted the launching of missiles from Gaza, but were undercut by the Israeli assassination of Ahmed Jabari, Hamas' military chief, a senior Palestinian official in Ramallah told GlobalPost.

Jabari was killed by an Israeli air strike on Wednesday in Gaza.

Husam Zomlot, the executive deputy commissioner for the Fatah Commission for International Relations, told GlobalPost he was party to high-level negotiations, which included the Egyptian government.

A similar claim was also made in a column published in today's New York Times by Gershon Baskin, co-chairman of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information. Last year, Baskin negotiated the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held hostage by Hamas for more than 5 years.

More from GlobalPost: LIVE BLOG: Continuous coverage of Gaza-Israel conflict

"On the morning that he was killed, Mr. Jabari received a draft proposal for an extended cease-fire with Israel, including mechanisms that would verify intentions and ensure compliance. This draft was agreed upon by me and Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, Mr. Hamad, when we met last week in Egypt," Baskin wrote.

Zomlot said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was fully to blame.

"He has done Israel a great disservice. He's a politician, not a statesman. Now he's opened the gates of hell and anyone can intervene. The events have absolutely sidelined any political initiative and have opened the gates for the elements of confrontation."

"Netanyahu has blocked at every turn a very clear political program President Abbas has been trying to maintain," Zomlot said, citing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' record on security in the West Bank, economic stability, the initiative to request UN recognition of Palestine and ties to the United States.

The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has struggled to find its footing since a failed attempt to gain UN recognition last year. Peace negotiations with Israel have been moribund. And since Israel began its military campaign in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority finds itself at a loss at the very moment when it should be in charge.

Watching at a distance as a parade of foreign dignitaries — including the Egyptian prime minister and the foreign minister of Tunisia — arrive in Gaza to shake hands with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, political echelons in Ramallah are beginning to feel dread.

Ramallah and Gaza have been under separate rule since 2006, when a brief coalition agreement between Hamas and Fatah, the political party of the Palestine Liberation Organization, fell apart.

"This is craziness," Zomlot said. "I think Mr. Netanyahu has miscalculated hugely this time. He has shifted all the dynamic towards Gaza and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the conflict is now spiraling regionally."

Echoing some voices in the Israeli left, Zomlot said he believes Netanyahu made a cold pre-electoral assessment that an attack on Gaza, and a show of defense for the populations in the south of the country that have been under a barrage of missiles for months, "would bring him national triumph."

"He thought he was the initiator," said Zomlot, calling the Israeli prime minister "that stupid Netanyahu." But "now he has been forced into reaction. And when you are in the reactionary position, you're not controlling the map."

Asked whether Abbas or the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, had any plans to visit Gaza themselves, Palestinian Authority spokeswoman Nour Odeh said she did not know.

"The president was very clear yesterday in his address to the country that the priority is to try and stop the aggression, to achieve national unity. So he is concentrating all his efforts there. I am not sure what the logistical plans of his movements are," she said.

On Friday, a protest in downtown Ramallah seemed to make Zomlot's point, as the green flags of the Islamist Hamas, which the United States and other western countries consider a terrorist group, outnumbered the yellow Fatah flags more commonly seen in the West Bank.

Various other low-key protests were held in the West Bank and Arab cities in Israel. In Nazareth, 500 people called on Israel to halt its bombing of Gaza.

Still, a feeling of disconnect reigns between the two Palestinian regions. In Ramallah on Saturday — a sunny, warm day — people ambled along the streets. The cafés were full.

One guest stood by a large flat screen broadcasting Palestine TV to listen to Riad al-Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, speak at as special session of the Arab League in Cairo. Everyone else in the lobby of the Grand Park Hotel, a plush, shiny, immaculate lounge, seemed preoccupied by other matters.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/israel-and-palestine/121117/israel-strike-gaza--egypt-cease-fire