Mitchell, disappointed by Netanyahu, resumes endeavors to move to direct negotiations

Israel negotiates Mitchell while retaining settlement plans in Jerusalem

Mubarak discusses with Yemen’s Saleh, Russian FM Lavrov developments in Middle East region

Assad: Israel’s aggressiveness blocked road to negotiations

The Speaker of Majlis Al-Shura, Dr. Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Ibrahim Al Al-Sheikh said that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia under the leadership of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is supporting the Palestinian cause, stressing the Kingdom's firm positions towards the Palestinian people and leadership.

'The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has exerted political effort and secured financial aid to support the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian people need support, and the siege imposed on Gaza should be lifted,' Dr. Al-Sheikh said.

Dr. Al Al-Sheikh's remarks came in a press statement following his participation in the extraordinary meeting of the Union of the Organizations of the Islamic Conference Member States (PUOICM) held in Damascus.

Meanwhile, Israel’s first steps toward easing its blockade of the Gaza Strip were welcomed Wednesday by the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East as he visited this crossing where goods are transferred to the Palestinian territory.

Under intense international pressure after a deadly raid on an aid flotilla headed for Gaza, Israel formally announced June 20 that it would relax the blockade. Israeli officials here were keen to show George J. Mitchell, who is mediating another round of indirect Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, that steps have already been taken to increase the supply of goods to the coastal strip, which is ruled by the militant group Hamas.

Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, the Israeli Defense Ministry's top official handling ties with the Palestinian territories, told Mitchell that since the decision to ease the embargo, the number of trucks moving goods through Kerem Shalom, the main cargo crossing to Gaza, has increased 30 percent. A total of 128 trucks carrying goods, fuel and cooking gas passed through Kerem Shalom on Wednesday, up from about 90 each day before the blockade was eased, army officials said. Dangot told Mitchell of plans to increase the flow to 250 trucks a day. Before the blockade, about 400 trucks of supplies moved into Gaza daily.

The general said he had been meeting with international aid groups to coordinate the transfer of materials for sewage and construction projects in Gaza. Israel has approved entry of such supplies for projects supervised by international organizations after previously barring shipments of cement, which it said Hamas could use to build bunkers.

Building materials are badly needed in Gaza to repair destruction caused by an Israeli offensive there 18 months ago in response to persistent rocket attacks.

Trucks lined up at Kerem Shalom on Wednesday carried glass kitchenware, baked goods and cables, and drivers said they were now bringing in chocolates, soft drinks, clothing and shoes that had been barred in the past. Military officials said home appliances, such as refrigerators and microwave ovens, were also being allowed in.

"I saw firsthand today that progress is being made," Mitchell said after touring the crossing. "As President Obama said, the situation in Gaza was unsustainable and demanded fundamental change. We welcome these changes. As implementation proceeds, these arrangements should significantly improve conditions for Palestinians in Gaza."

The easing of the blockade has so far not allowed in raw materials for industrial and food production, nor has it permitted exports or free movement of people out of the territory. A naval blockade also remains in place, a measure Israel says is necessary to prevent arms smuggling by sea. "Israel has legitimate security concerns," Mitchell said. "The United States strongly reaffirms Israel's right to self-defense, and we support international efforts to prevent the trafficking of arms and ammunition into Gaza."

Israel first imposed a blockade on Gaza after the capture of Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit by militants from Hamas and allied groups in a cross-border raid in June 2006. The blockade was tightened after Hamas seized power in Gaza a year later.

Noting that Shalit was taken from an army post near Kerem Shalom, Mitchell called his continued captivity after four years "deplorable and unacceptable."

"We condemn this detention," Mitchell said. "We also condemn the inhumane conditions in which he is held."

Shalit's parents, accompanied by thousands of supporters, are staging a 12-day march to Jerusalem to press the government to agree to a prisoner exchange that would secure his release.

On the other hand, the planned demolition of Palestinian houses in east Jerusalem, as part of an archaeological project, is "an obstacle to peace," EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said Wednesday.

Jewish "settlements and the demolition of homes are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible," Ashton warned in a statement.

The European Union's High Representative stressed that the EU has never recognized Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem.

"If there is to be genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states," Ashton added.

The Palestinians reluctantly agreed to launch the indirect talks in May after months of shuttle diplomacy by US envoy George Mitchell, but said they would not move to direct talks without a complete Israeli settlement freeze.

Ashton called on Israel "to refrain from measures which may undermine the ongoing (indirect) proximity talks," where mediators shuttle between the two parties.

"These talks enjoy our full support and the parties need to engage seriously in these negotiations," the EU foreign affairs chief underlined.

Israeli police clashed on Sunday with some 200 Palestinian protesters in an Arab neighborhood of east Jerusalem that is the planned site of the controversial archaeological park.

The clashes occurred in Silwan, an Arab neighborhood, which has been the focus of the plan by Jerusalem municipality to raze 22 Arab homes to make way for an archaeological park.

Silwan is part of the so-called Holy Basin, just outside the walls of Jerusalem's famed Old City, and is believed to be the site of ancient Jerusalem during the time of the biblical kings David and Solomon.

It is now a crowded Arab neighborhood in a part of the city occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally.

Israel considers the whole of Jerusalem as its "eternal and indivisible" capital while the Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state.

Leaders from five Arab League member countries met in Libya for talks on advancing the work of the grouping and a proposal for the formation of a union of Arab states.

The so-called pentagonal committee, made up of Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq and Qatar, was appointed at an Arab summit in March to look into the initiative put forward by Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The summit, chaired by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, was attended by HH the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s Saleh, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa.

The meeting is meant to pave the way for talks at a full meeting of Arab leaders in October.

The summit adopted a number of recommendations including the vision for the development of the Arab League, the holding of Arab summits twice a year, and meetings dedicated to specific areas such as economic, social, cultural and educational development.

It also called for setting up an executive council at the level of heads of government to oversee the implementation of the resolutions of Arab summits.

On the issue of replacing the Arab League with an Arab union, Moussa has noted: “Changing the name is not the point, it is more important to unify the Arab states, not just have an Arab union.”

Libya currently holds the rotating presidency of the Arab League.

President Mubarak also discussed with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about Egyptian and international efforts to push forward the Middle East peace process on Wednesday.

Lavrov, who is in Egypt as part of a regional tour, briefed President Mubarak on the outcome of the consultations he held with Palestinian and Israeli officials to push forward peace efforts, Egypt's official MENA news agency reported.

Mubarak and Lavrov also talked about efforts to move from indirect negotiations to direct peace talks that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state side by side, the report added.

The talks tackled Egyptian-Russian cooperation in trade and economic domains and other issues of mutual concern.

In Brasilia, the leaders of Brazil and Syria Wednesday backed the founding of an independent Palestinian state and admonished Israel to lift its blockade against the Gaza Strip.

In a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, also backed the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967.

"Blockades do not contribute to peace," Lula said, according to media reports after the meeting. "The incident with the humanitarian fleet which was attacked in international waters showed that it's long overdue that the blockade of Gaza is lifted."

Israeli military commandos boarded the ships trying to break the blockade and killed nine activists. Israel put the blockade in place in the past years to prevent war materiels from reaching Gaza, which regularly attacks Israel with missiles. Assad criticized Israel for always placing new hurdles in the way to a Middle East peace agreement.

He also expressed support for the agreement with Iran worked out by Brazil and Turkey regarding uranium enrichment - a proposal rejected by the international community as not going far enough. Assad said Iran's willingness to make such an agreement - reached just as the UN Security Council was on the verge of passing new sanctions against Iran - showed it was open to negotiations.

The two leaders signed bilateral agreements in the areas of justice, education and health. It was Assad's first visit in Brazil, following Lula's visit to Damascus in 2003.

Syrian-Brazilian trade volume has increased from 78 million dollars in 2003 to 307 million dollars in 2009, the government said.

Assad has visited Venezuela and Cuba and was heading to Argentina on Thursday.