Mitchell follows up mediation despite recent region tour failure

U.S. envoy’s talks in Ramallah, Jordan, Egypt, Israel end up in proposals facing obstacles

President Mubarak: Region going through critical stage, no time for futile negotiations

Israel trying to dodge Palestinians’ rights by switching to Syria negotiations, Mitchell refused

EU grants more privileges to Israel

A U.S.-based human rights group on Thursday rejected a Hamas claim that it did not target civilians during last year's war against Israel, putting new pressure on the Islamic militant group days ahead of a U.N. deadline to respond to war crimes allegations.

The new claims against Hamas could carry extra weight because they came from Human Rights Watch, a group Israel has accused of unfair bias against the Jewish state.

The criticism from the New York-based human rights organization drew fresh attention to Hamas actions in the three-week war, during which about 1,400 Palestinians _ most of them civilians _ and 13 Israelis were killed. Most international criticism, including by Human Rights Watch, has been directed toward Israel.

Both Israel and Hamas face a Feb. 5 deadline to respond to allegations in a U.N. report that they committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during the fighting.

The report, put together by former war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, accused Israel of using disproportionate force and deliberately targeting civilians. It also accused Hamas of firing rockets indiscriminately toward communities in southern Israel.

The U.N. investigation called on each side to conduct independent investigations into the allegations. Neither has delivered a formal response, and both have signaled they will not comply.

An Israeli official said Thursday that Israel will deliver a letter to the U.N. on Friday, explaining the scope of Israel's internal investigations and declaring that Israel complied with international law during the Gaza conflict. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the letter has not been delivered.

Hamas said in an internal document obtained by The Associated Press that its rocket and mortar fire were directed solely at military targets and that any civilian casualties were accidental.

Palestinian militants fired some 800 rockets and mortar shells into Israel during the conflict, killing three civilians and wounding about 80. A frequent target was Sderot, next to the Gaza border, where there are no military bases. The rocket fire forced hundreds of thousands of Israelis to seek cover in bomb shelters.

Human Rights Watch said its new criticism of Hamas is a response to the militant group's internal report.

"Most of the rocket attacks on Israel hit civilian areas, which suggests that civilians were the target" and Hamas' claim of aiming for military targets "is belied by the facts," said Bill van Esveld, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

He added that statements from Hamas leaders during the fighting made clear that they intended to harm Israeli civilians.

"Deliberately targeting civilians is a war crime," van Esveld said.

He said Hamas also committed war crimes by launching rockets from populated areas, which endangered the local population in Gaza by raising the likelihood of Israeli retaliation.

"Fighters intentionally fired rockets from near civilians in order to shield themselves from counterattacks," he said.

Hamas officials were not immediately available for comment.

Human Rights Watch has leveled serious accusations at Israel over its conduct during the Gaza war.

It has released three lengthy reports about Israel's wartime practices, including accusations that the Israeli army misused white phosphorous, an illuminating agent that can cause severe burns to people. It has also charged that Israeli troops unlawfully shot civilians as they waved white flags. Israel denies the allegations.

Israeli officials and pro-Israel groups have accused Human Rights Watch of focusing excessive attention on Israel.

The complaints gained steam after pro-Israel groups questioned Human Rights Watch's fundraising in Saudi Arabia, and discovered the group's senior military analyst was an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia. The analyst was subsequently suspended.

The complaints also prompted Human Rights Watch's founder, Robert L. Bernstein, to accuse the organization of anti-Israel bias. In an Oct. 20 op-ed piece in the New York Times, he said the group condemned Israel for violating international law more than any other country in the region.

He also argued that Israel was paying a price because it is far more open than its Arab neighbors, making it easier for rights groups to work.

Van Esveld rejected any allegations of bias. He noted that the group has also issued two reports criticizing Hamas' conduct during the Gaza conflict.

"We focused a lot on the Gaza war, but that's because it was a war in which there was a lot of controversy," he said. "This is the kind of incident that we want to report on. But it's the incident rather than the fact that Israel was involved that made us do that."

Israel did not cooperate with the U.N. commission and rejected its findings as biased and unfounded. It says the military operation was launched in self-defense, and that it did everything it could to limit civilian casualties.

By rejecting calls for an independent inquiry, both Hamas and Israel could open themselves up to international war crimes proceedings.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak said for a long time Egypt has defended Arab issues and the Palestinian cause.

The president went on to lament what he perceives as the ungratefulness of other Arabs.

"Our sacrifices are met with campaigns of suspicion and attempts to cast aspersion, and [...] we are extremely angry about what happened lately in Arish and Rafah, the targeting of our soldiers, and attempts to bring chaos to our land under the name of solidarity convoys to Gaza," Mubarak said in an interview with Al-Shurta (The Police) magazine.

"How would the region, the Arab world and the Middle East in general be if Egypt had not assumed its responsibilities?" Mubarak emphasized that Egypt will continue to support the Palestinian cause and the peace process, while giving priority to Egypt's national security.

When asked about the role of political parties, Mubarak said, "Parties are part of the Egyptian political system. If there are disagreements between parties about some programs or positions, this doesn't mean that some of those parties are more patriotic or loving toward Egypt than others."

Mubarak also advised political parties to end their internal conflicts and offer solutions rather than just criticism.

The president further called on political parties to integrate new members and young people, giving them the opportunity to take decisions that shape their futures.

The Ministry of Interior will play an important role in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, Mubarak said, adding that the ministry should contribute to bolstering constitutional and legislative reforms introduced in 2005.

Mubarak also assured that the upcoming parliamentary elections will be characterized by integrity, and that the new formation of the People's Assembly formation will reflect the will of the voters.

On the other hand, US Middle East envoy George Mitchell on Sunday shuttled between Jerusalem and Amman in his second attempt this week to persuade Israeli and Palestinian leaders to relaunch peace talks.

Mitchell met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem before heading to Amman to see Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas as part of a tour aimed at reviving talks suspended during the Gaza war more than a year ago.

"President (Barack) Obama, Secretary of State (Hillary) Clinton and the United States are fully committed to comprehensive peace in the Middle East..." Mitchell said after meeting Abbas in joint remarks to reporters with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.

"The two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which includes the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state... we believe it's the only realistic solution to the conflict."

He said that such a solution "also includes agreements between Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon and full normalisation of relations among all countries in the region."

Mitchell said Washington would "pursue our efforts until that objective is achieved."

Erakat said the Palestinians have not set preconditions for a resumption of talks.

"We don't have any conditions to resume negotiations. It's time for Israel to drop its conditions," he said. "If Israel thinks that by finger-pointing at us and blaming us (the conflict) can be solved, it won't be solved.

"What really obstructs the efforts by Senator Mitchell and President Obama is Israel and its settlements, incursions and assassinations. When we say Israel should stop building settlements, it's not a Palestinian condition. It's an Israeli commitment that should be respected," Erakat said.

"We want a credible peace and we will continue to do our best and cooperate with the United States, but Israel should respect its commitments."

Earlier in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said after meeting Mitchell that the envoy had presented "new ideas" about how to relaunch the peace process, without elaborating.

"I expressed my hope that these new ideas will lead to the renewal of the peace process if the Palestinians themselves show similar interest," he added.

The United States has been trying for months to convince both sides to return to the negotiating table, but the Palestinians have refused to do so unless Israel halts all settlement growth in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories it occupied in 1967.

Washington initially backed that demand but has more recently pressed both sides to return to the talks immediately and praised a limited 10-month settlement slowdown enacted by Netanyahu in November.

The Palestinians have rejected the moratorium on building starts because it excludes mostly Arab east Jerusalem -- which they demand as their capital -- as well as public buildings and projects already under way.

After meeting Mitchell, Netanyahu attended a symbolic tree planting ceremony at Gush Etzion, a major West Bank settlement bloc that Israel plans to keep in any future peace deal.

"Our message is clear. We are planting trees here, we will remain here, we will build here. This place will remain part of Israel for ever. There is a national consensus on this issue," his office quoted him as saying.

Israel has insisted it will not give any more ground and has blamed the Palestinians for the impasse.

Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said on Sunday it was "time to say clearly and unequivocally that there will be no further concessions from Israel for the launching of negotiations."

"The method of the Palestinians is to refuse to resume negotiations to force the United States to exert pressure on Israel," he told public radio. "The ball is in the Palestinian court."

Mitchell held a first round of talks with Netanyahu on Thursday and met Abbas on Friday. Last week he also visited Lebanon and Syria.

Later on Sunday he flew to Cairo for a two-day visit during which he would meet officials, Egypt's official MENA news agency reported without elaborating.

The European Union (EU) on Wednesday said that a resumption of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians is of "utmost urgency" and called on both parties to take appropriated measures towards a two-State solution.

"If there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of two States," the acting head of EU delegation Pedro Serrano told the UN Security Council during an open debate on the Middle East.

"The resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict remains a central political and strategic objective for the EU," Serrano said.

The EU, which is a member of the international Quartet comprising also the United States, Russia and the UN, hopes in its diplomatic efforts to see a secure Israel living in peace with an independent Palestinian State.

"A resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, now absent for more than a year, is of utmost urgency," Serrano said. "These negotiations, however, must be focused and result- oriented."

Serrano reiterated that the negotiations must include final status issues, such as borders, Jerusalem and security with an agreed time frame to a two-State solution.

"The EU will not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties," he said. "The EU supports the ongoing efforts of the United States towards a resumption of negotiations, which are closely coordinated among Quartet partners."

Serrano also noted the EU role to Palestinian state-building, in line with the Palestinian Authority's government plan.

"The EU welcomes Israel's steps to ease restrictions of movement in the West Bank, which have made a contribution to the economic growth," he said. "Further and sustained improvements of movement and access have to follow."

"The EU took positive note of the decision of the government of Israel on a partial and temporary settlement freeze," Serrano said. "The EU urges the government of Israel to immediately end all settlement activities, in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank and including natural growth, and to dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank settlements in November 2009. However, Netanyahu stressed that the construction limits would not be implemented in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem.

Israel deems Jerusalem as its indivisible capital, while the Palestinians want the east section of the holy city as capital of their future state.