Abbas reiterates linking direct negotiations to clear written assurances

Mubarak, Gul hold talks in Cairo over regional developments

U.S. committed to offer $30 billion in 10 years to Israel

Occupation army continues seizing Palestinians’ property in Jerusalem

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants the U.S. to spell out its views on the borders of a Palestinian state before resuming direct negotiations with Israel, an adviser said Wednesday, raising a condition that Israel is unlikely to accept.

President Barack Obama's envoy, George Mitchell, has been mediating low-key indirect talks for weeks, but no progress has been reported. Israel and the U.S. believe direct negotiations should resume, but the Palestinians are reluctant.

Talks ended in late 2008 without agreement on an Israeli proposal for a Palestinian state that would comprise Gaza, about 95 percent of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem, with exchanges of land to make up the difference and a corridor through Israel linking the two territories. Israel also agreed to take in some refugees, but not the millions Palestinians count.

Detailing the offer, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has said publicly on at least two occasions that Abbas turned it down because he was not willing to compromise over Jerusalem.

Both sides claim a key holy site in the Old City.

Abbas has insisted that the negotiations must resume with the Israeli offer back on the table, but the current leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has withdrawn it. Netanyahu has agreed to the principle of a Palestinian state but refuses to detail his ideas about key issues like borders before direct negotiations resume.

Abbas is in a precarious political position, ruling only the West Bank after the Islamic militant group Hamas overran Gaza three years ago, while facing Hamas challenges and internal party squabbles in the West Bank. He was forced to cancel local elections set for this month because of the turmoil. His weakness limits his ability to compromise in peace negotiations. Likewise, Netanyahu heads a hard-line ruling coalition that would not endorse the concessions made by the previous government.

Against that backdrop, Obama sought to reassure both leaders in separate meetings this month.

Abbas said Mitchell outlined Obama's views about the negotiations last week. Abbas was quoted as saying the U.S. president was vague on what constituted Palestinian territory.

"We expect much pressure and hard days, but we will not go to negotiations like blind people," Abbas was quoted as telling Fatah leaders in a closed-door meeting Tuesday night.

Abbas' comments were published Wednesday in a Palestinian daily, and confirmed by his adviser Sabri Saidam, who was present at the meeting.

The potential for violence during the political stalemate was illustrated again Wednesday in Gaza, where two Palestinian militants were killed and seven wounded by Israeli gunfire, Palestinian health official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain said. The military said soldiers fired at suspected militants approaching the border fence with Israel.

While border violence has dropped significantly since Israel's punishing three-week offensive in Gaza that ended in January 2009, Palestinian militants have fired occasional rockets at neighboring Jewish communities.

That war continued to reverberate Wednesday.

The Israeli military submitted a new report to the United Nations on its Gaza offensive, pledging to take greater precautions to avoid civilian casualties. The report insists the offensive was a necessary and proportionate response to years of Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli towns. About 1,400 Gazans were killed in the war, including hundreds of civilians.

Thirteen Israelis were killed.

U.N. investigators wrote last year that they found evidence that both sides committed war crimes. Hamas was cited for indiscriminate rocket fire on Israeli civilians, while Israel was accused of using disproportionate force and intentionally harming civilians. Both sides rejected the charges.

Also Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said South Africa's ambassador returned to Israel on Monday, six weeks after he was withdrawn in protest over a raid by Israeli navy commandos on a Gaza-bound flotilla in which nine activists were killed. The raid provoked harsh international criticism.

Meanwhile, Egyptian President Hosni Mubrak met with Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Cairo for talks focusing on trade, investment, and regional issues, a presidential spokesperson said on Wednesday.

Mubarak and Gul also attended a graduation ceremony at the Egyptian Military Academy, Awad said.

The two leaders discussed raising the level of trade and investment between the two countries from its current value of two billion US dollars to around 5 billion US dollars by 2012, spokesperson Suleiman Awad said.

Gul, who arrived in Cairo on Tuesday, has already departed the country.

The two presidents also confirmed plans to complete the Turkish industrial zone which is being built in Egypt's Sixth of October city, and to work towards an agreement easing travel visa requirements particularly for businessmen and investors.

Turkish investments in Egypt stand at around 1.5 billion US dollars.

The leaders discussed the Middle East process, the Iran nuclear issue, and the political situation in Iraq ahead of the significant US troop reductions scheduled to occur next month.

In response to a question regarding recent reports in international media that Mubarak's health is seriously deteriorating, Awad said these reports were untrue and unsubstantiated, as proven by the President's frequent meetings and high-level activities.

On the other hand, Israel and the United States signed a Memorandum of Understanding Thursday under which the Jewish state will receive 30 billion US dollars in defense aid over the next 10 years, a 25- per-cent increase over the previous decade.

'This contribution will allow Israel to plan its defense expenditures in a way that is rational,' Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said as he signed the agreement with Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Aharon Abramovich.

He told reporters at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem that the agreement had 'no restrictions or conditions' regarding Israel's present or future conduct, and was 'not linked to American assistance to any other country in the region.'

The aid package, he said, 'stipulates that over the next 10 years there will be an increasing level of bilateral cooperation' between Israel and the US.

Israel is slated to receive the first installment of the money in October 2008.

Israel will be allowed to convert 26.3 per cent of the aid money into Israeli shekels, allowing it to purchase defense equipment form local companies. The rest of the package has to be used to buy materiel from US-defense industries.

The Palestinian U.N. envoy accused Israel on Wednesday of talking peace while carrying out "illegal schemes" to impose the settlement it wants before negotiations start on a peace agreement.

Riyad Mansour told the U.N. Security Council the actions — including settlement construction and demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, more than 900 military incursions in the West Bank and the arrest of more than 380 Palestinians in the last two months — are seriously hampering progress in indirect talks with Israel mediated by the United States.

He said the Security Council and the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers — the U.N., the U.S., the European Union and Russia — must stop appeasing Israel and consider collective actions to make the Jewish state comply with its international obligations and salvage a two-state solution "within an accelerated timeframe."

Israel's U.N. Ambassador Gabriela Shalev reiterated that it was time to move from indirect talks to direct negotiations with the Palestinians with no preconditions and no delays, saying this is "the only path to bridge the existing gaps" between the two sides.

She stressed that Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state must be met with an acknowledgement of Israel's right to exist as the homeland for the Jewish people — which the Palestinians refuse to do because they want a right of return for Palestinian refugees.

"Through such mutual recognition, we can take tangible steps towards promoting coexistence, eliminating incitement and combating terrorism" and make "courageous decisions ... for the sake of peace," Shalev said.

Mansour reiterated the Palestinian position that a total settlement freeze is essential before direct negotiations start, and he accused Israel of refusing to adhere to past commitments including those it agreed to at the Mideast summit in Annapolis, Maryland, in November 2007 which was supposed to re-launch negotiations and end in an peace agreement by the end of 2008.

Israeli-Palestinian talks ended in late 2008 without agreement on an Israeli proposal for a Palestinian state that would comprise Gaza, about 95 per cent of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem, with exchanges of land to make up the difference and a corridor through Israel linking the two territories. Israel also agreed to take in some refugees, but not the millions that the Palestinians count.

U.S. deputy ambassador Brooke Anderson said the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians had narrowed during indirect talks over the past two months mediated by U.S. special envoy George Mitchell and she called for direct talks "as soon as possible" to further narrow the differences.

U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe said the international community is again "at a critical juncture in the effort to move to serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations" and he said the Quartet's goal is also a speedy resumption of direct negotiations.

Mansour said the U.S. needs to press Israel to comply with its commitments, including a settlement freeze.

"What we are witnessing is an Israeli government that speaks facetiously of peace on the international stage while it simultaneously carries out its illegal schemes aimed at imposing a 'fait accompli' prior to conclusion of a peace settlement, making a mockery of the efforts being exerted in that regard by all concerned parties," he said.

Moreover, Israel will restrict its use of white phosphorus munitions and seek to limit civilian casualties in future wars, it said in a report to the UN secretary general released this week.

"The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) chief of general staff ordered the establishment of a clear doctrine and orders on the issue of various munitions which contain white phosphorous," said the 37-page report, posted on the Israeli foreign ministry's website. "These instructions are currently being implemented."

It said the military has also implemented changes in combat doctrine "designated to further minimize civilian casualties and damage to civilian property in the future."

"In particular, the IDF has adopted important new procedures designed to enhance the protection of civilians in urban warfare," the report said, adding that a "humanitarian affairs officer" would be integrated in each combat unit, from battalion level up.

Israel has faced sharp condemnation for the high civilian toll and the use of white phosphorus munitions in the devastating 22-day offensive it launched in December 2008 in response to daily rocket attacks by Gaza’s Hamas rulers and other Palestinian armed groups.

Human rights groups say that more than half of the 1,400 Palestinians killed in the war did not take part in the hostilities, including 320 minors.

Rights groups also say Israel made widespread use of white phosphorus.

Under international law, white phosphorus is banned for use near civilians, but is permitted for creating a smokescreen.

The Israeli armed forces insist they did their utmost to avoid civilian casualties.