Agence France Presse (AFP)
December 5, 2008 - 1:00am

CAIRO (AFP) - Already tense relations between Egypt and Hamas have soured after Cairo for the first time openly accused the Islamists of torpedoing Palestinian reconciliation talks.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit was quoted as saying on Thursday that months of Egyptian-mediated talks between rivals Hamas and Fateh failed in November because of "Hamas' lack of enthusiasm towards reconciliation".

As the only Arab nation bordering the Gaza Strip, Egypt has been trying to reach a detente between Fateh and Hamas and prevent their conflict, which saw Hamas violently eject Fateh from Gaza in June 2007, spilling into Egypt.

Cairo is worried about a repetition of the chaotic scenes last January when hundreds of thousands of Gazans broke through the Rafah border crossing and the Israeli lockdown on the territory, to spend a few days shopping in Egypt.

Following the breach, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman in August began hosting inter-Palestinian talks involving 13 factions, including Fateh and Hamas, in the hope of reaching a consensus on a unity government.

A deal was almost reached that would have seen a technocrat government set up without Fateh or Hamas figures that would be acceptable to the international community, much of which boycotts Hamas.

Such an agreement could also have led to a reopening of the Rafah crossing in accordance with a 2005 deal between Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the European Union which requires PA forces to man the border.

But Hamas pulled out of the talks at the last moment, saying Fateh was continuing to arrest its members in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Fateh retains nominal political control.

Settler standoff

Israeli police using stun grenades evicted Jewish settlers from a disputed house in Hebron on Thursday, prompting mobs to go on a rampage and attack Palestinians in the volatile West Bank city.

Furious settlers fired shots, hurled rocks, set fire to Palestinian homes and fields, and clashed with security forces following the eviction carried out by about 100 officers.

Relatives said three Palestinians suffered gunshot wounds and were evacuated by helicopter, while police said five civilians and two policemen were injured during the eviction itself. Medics said there were further injuries during ensuing clashes.

A cloud of black smoke covered much of the neighbourhood as hardline supporters of the settlers set Palestinian olive fields alight and, according to Palestinian residents, torched two homes and a dozen cars.

In several areas of the city, youths clashed with security forces who responded with tear gas. Witnesses said Israeli soldiers beat up a Palestinian photographer who was involved in a fight with a settler. The photographer was taken to hospital.

Several people were arrested, according to police.

"It could have been worse," Danny Poleg, a spokesman for Israeli police in the West Bank, said after officers found objects residents of the disputed house evidently intended to use as weapons, including potatoes studded with nails.

Police used blowtorches to seal the house shut after using stun grenades and tear gas to force the settlers out of the four-storey building.

The eviction followed a November 16 Israeli high court order for the settlers to leave the house they claim they bought legally from a Palestinian who denies selling it.

"Israel is a country where the rule of law prevails. It is not a country of vigilantes," said government spokesman Mark Regev.

Doaz Aetzni, a far right-wing leader expressed outrage at the police action.

"They are very aggressive with the Jews and very soft with the Arabs," he told AFP. "This country has become crazy." The police action came just hours after Defence Minister Ehud Barak and settler representatives failed to reach agreement in last-ditch talks.

Elsewhere in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, attackers hurled rocks at Palestinian drivers and scrawled graffiti on a mosque insulting the Muslim faith, according to witnesses.

Outside Jerusalem hundreds of youths blocked a major highway to protest the eviction, causing massive traffic jams and hurling insults at police, calling them "Nazis". Israeli authorities declared the whole of the southern West Bank a closed military zone to prevent Israelis who don't live there from entering the area.

The settlers and their right-wing supporters had already engaged several violent attacks in Hebron since the court issued the evacuation order.

Hardline settlers says they have adopted a "price tag" policy under which they respond to any eviction by attacking Palestinians and Israeli security forces.

The settlers insist they have a God-given right to all of the biblical land of Israel and that they were legally in the house, which a Jewish-American businessman claims he bought to allow more Jews to live in Hebron.

Settlers consider the house a strategic asset because it is about half-way between Kiryat Arba settlement, home to 6,500 Israelis, and Hebron city centre where about 600 hardline Jews live under heavy military protection.

Israel under fire at UN

Israel came under sustained criticism from its Arab neighbours over its human rights record at a UN council Thursday, with Western states also expressing concern at the treatment of Palestinians.

The Jewish state was being examined by the UN Human Rights Council as part of the "Universal Periodic Review" to which every UN member state must submit.

In Thursday's session, Syria's ambassador to the council referred ironically to the "oasis of democracy" he claimed was presented by Israel's own submission as part of the proceedings.

The Palestinian representative declared he was "astonished" by Israel's presentation "which did not mention its responsibilities as an occupying power" in the Palestinian territories.

Israel's Ambassador Aharon Leshno-Yaar said his country wished to show "proof of its humility" before the council, but also pointed to progress in the rights of disabled people, greater tolerance of sexual diversity and the banning of corporal punishment in schools.


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