Israel approves arms for police in West Bank
Published Wednesday, November 21, 2007 1:58PM EST
JERUSALEM - Israel's premier approved a shipment of Russian arms to police in the West Bank, overriding objections of his own security forces to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas going into next week's U.S.-sponsored peace conference, Israeli officials said Wednesday.
Israel also will let farmers in the Gaza Strip export strawberries and flowers, a gesture aimed at easing the economic crunch that has worsened for the coastal territory's 1.5 million Palestinians during the international isolation since the Hamas takeover in June.
The Mideast conference, called by President Bush, is to open Monday with a dinner in Washington and proceed with two days of talks in Annapolis, Md., and Washington. Israel and the Palestinians received invitations Tuesday, and the U.S. was contacting dozens of others, including Arab nations, to lend support by attending.
One mission of the gathering is to boost Abbas, who is in a fierce struggle with the Islamic militants of Hamas. Pro-Abbas forces lost control of Gaza after a five-day offensive by Hamas fighters, who captured large quantities of weapons and ammunition that had been supplied by Israel, the U.S. and others.
Israeli military and security officers voiced strong concerns that the West Bank weapons also could fall into Hamas' hands, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided the arms were needed to beef up Palestinian forces in the West Bank loyal to Abbas, officials said.
The security officials said Olmert authorized the shipment of 25 Russian armoured vehicles, 1,000 rifles and 2 million bullets. Palestinian Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiye confirmed Israeli approval had been secured.
Russia had proposed shipping the armoured vehicles to Palestinian security forces two years ago, but delivery was stalled because of Israeli opposition.
Hamas officials in Gaza protested the arms deal. A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the Israeli decision proved Abbas was working "hand in hand with the (Israeli) occupation against (Palestinian) resistance."
"Hamas will remain committed to fight against the occupation and will not give up," Abu Zuhri said. Hamas does not recognize Israel and is committed to replacing it with an Islamic state.
Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005 but still has a large military presence in the West Bank, indirectly helping Abbas' pro-Fatah forces maintain control there.
Pro-Abbas Palestinian police are now deployed in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Nablus. Israel will allow the delivery of 25 additional armoured vehicles once Abbas' forces take control of other areas of the West Bank, Israeli officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The decision to permit some exports from Gaza was announced by Israeli Agriculture Minister Shalom Simchon.
Since Hamas took control of Gaza, Israel has blocked almost all exports from the area, severely harming its already poor economy. All exports from Gaza must travel through Israel.
Gaza's 40,000 farmers have repeatedly pushed for the resumption of exports. The export of all their flower and strawberry crops will be worth at least US$14 million to farmers, the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce said.
On Tuesday, Gaza farmers had fed flowers to their cattle rather than let them go to waste.
The international aid group Oxfam warned Wednesday of an increasing risk to public health in Gaza due to reduction in fuel supplies. About 225,000 people in Gaza do not receive adequate amounts of drinking water because water pumps are not operating at full capacity, Oxfam said.
Israel reduced fuel shipments to Gaza several weeks ago after declaring Gaza a "hostile territory." Israel intends to cut back on electricity supplies, as well, but its attorney general has held that up over concerns over humanitarian harm.
Gaza depends on Israel for all its fuel and more than half its electricity.