(ObamaWatch) Day 1: Obama calls Middle East leaders during first day in office

MARK WEISS in Jerusalem

HOURS AFTER the last Israeli troops left the Gaza Strip, President Barack Obama, in his first day in office, phoned regional leaders yesterday stressing his commitment to pursuing Middle East peace.

The first foreign leader to receive a phone call from Mr Obama was Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. The new US leader pledged to work with Mr Abbas as a partner for a “durable peace” in the Middle East.

Mr Obama promised Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert that he would work together with Israel to halt the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip.

Mr Olmert told the US president that preventing Hamas from rearming was critical to “stabilising the ceasefire and promoting the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

President Obama also spoke yesterday to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah, fulfilling a promise to get involved in Middle East peacemaking from day one of his presidency.

Earlier yesterday the last Israeli troops pulled out of the Gaza Strip, but Israeli forces remained massed on the border, ready to respond to any Palestinian ceasefire violations.

Tsahi Hanegbi, the chairman of the Knesset’s (parliament) foreign affairs and defence committee, warned of a harsh Israeli response.

“Hamas militants face a simple equation,” he said, “If the rocket fire resumes, we will respond with force so strong and overpowering, they will miss the day the Israel airforce’s offensive began.”

Israel had planned to pull out all its troops on Tuesday, before Mr Obama’s inauguration ceremony, but isolated incidents of shooting and mortar fire delayed the withdrawal.

Inside Gaza, armed police returned to the streets, directing traffic and guarding the few government offices that survived the Israeli bombing.

Hamas security forces also began rounding up residents who were suspected of providing Israel with intelligence prior to, and during, the 22-day military campaign. “The internal security service was instructed to track collaborators and hit them hard,” said Ehab al-Ghsain, spokesman of the Hamas interior ministry.

Fatah, the secular rival to Hamas, issued a statement in Gaza, claiming that since the fighting ended at the weekend, its members have been targeted by Hamas gunmen.

Fatah claimed that there were cases of summary executions with bodies thrown on to the piles of rubble.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy head of Hamas’s political wing, confirmed that his organisation had executed several people who were considered collaborators and had helped pinpoint several key targets in Gaza for the Israeli air force.

“We will bring to justice those who were involved in helping Israel mark the location of interior minister Said Siam,” he promised.

Israeli official Amos Gilad is due in Cairo today for further talks with Egyptian representatives on efforts to prevent Hamas rearming via smuggling tunnels.

Hamas negotiators, who are holding separate talks with the Egyptians, are pressing for the border crossings to be opened.

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times


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