SOURCE: http://www.bicom.org.uk

Key Points

  • Gaza-based militants test ceasefire with border attack and rocket fire
  • Egyptian efforts to forge long-term ceasefire continue
  • US envoy George Mitchell’s visit to the region marks first engagement of Obama administration


Key Statements

Israeli Government spokesman Mark Regev (28/1): “Israel wants the calm in the south to continue, but yesterday’s deadly attack from Gaza was an attempt to deliberately undermine the calm.”

US envoy George Mitchell (28/1): “It is of critical importance that the ceasefire be extended and consolidated. We support Egypt’s continuing efforts in that regard.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (27/1): “It is regrettable that the Hamas leadership apparently believes that it is in their interest to provoke the right of self-defense instead of building a better future for the people of Gaza.”


Situation on the ground

A Qassam rocket was launched from the Gaza Strip into the western Negev this morning, marking another breach of the ceasefire that was reached last week. Responding to a bombing attack which killed an Israeli soldier and wounded three others on the Israeli side of the Gaza border yesterday morning, Israeli aircraft carried out airstrikes this morning on tunnels used for smuggling weapons between the Sinai and Gaza.

The attack on the Israeli patrol was the first major breach of the ceasefire reached at the end of Operation Cast Lead. A remote-control bomb was detonated close to the Kissufim Crossing, as an IDF patrol was passing near it. One soldier was killed in the explosion and three others were wounded, one of them seriously. No group initially claimed responsibility for the attack, but it was later claimed by a group affiliated with al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, Israeli officials said that the attack, which required a high degree of preparation, could not have taken place without the permission of the Hamas rulers of Gaza.

The flare-up is a test of the new level of deterrence Israel has built up against militants in Gaza. Israel hopes that Hamas will be keen to rein in attacks to avoid Israel resuming large-scale attacks against its infrastructure in Gaza.

Footage of the border attack can be viewed by clicking here:BICOM Videos: BBC News – Hamas attacks Israeli patrol.


Diplomatic developments

The flare-up in violence comes as ceasefire talks continue in Cairo. International Arab daily Asharq Alawsat is reporting that according to Palestinian sources, Hamas may be willing to accept an Egyptian proposal for an 18-month ceasefire in a deal that could bring the opening of the crossings into Israel. Egypt is continuing to push for Hamas to re-engage in Palestinian unity talks, whilst Israel wants to see a deal to return captive soldier Gilad Shalit before agreeing to open the crossings. Shalit’s father met yesterday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy (Shalit is also a French citizen) to receive an update on efforts to bring about the release of Gilad. Sarkozy confirmed in the meeting that Shalit is still alive.

After meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo this morning, US Middle East envoy George Mitchell headed to Jerusalem for a series of high-level meetings with Israeli officials. The visit, which will also include meetings in Ramallah, Amman and Saudi Arabia, is the first attempt by the new US administration to increase its involvement in the Middle East.

In addition to being one of the issues Mitchell plans to discuss, arms smuggling into Gaza remains on the agenda in Washington, Cairo and several European capitals. Defence Minister Barak is scheduled to travel to Washington tonight for talks with US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates on the measures taken to prevent the smuggling. Focusing on the same issue, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana will arrive in Israel for talks today, after meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit in Cairo yesterday.

In a further development, a conference is scheduled to take place in Copenhagen next week, focusing on developing effective means to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza. Top US, European and Israeli officials will take part in the conference. Yossi Gal and Rafi Barak, both senior officials in Israel’s Foreign Ministry, will represent Israel.

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