Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads to Moscow today, where he will cross paths with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as they consult separately with a Russian leadership looking to insert itself into Middle East peacemaking.
Violence has been escalating between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Israeli soldiers yesterday fired mortar shells into Gaza killing four teenagers playing soccer, and an air strike left three other people dead in a separate incident, a Gaza health official said.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks stalled in September after Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial construction freeze in West Bank settlements. Abbas has said he won’t negotiate with Israel while the building continues.
There is “nothing planned in terms of a meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu in Moscow,” Palestinian Liberation Organization executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi said in a phone interview, adding that the timing of the visits likely wasn’t coincidental.
“The Russians have always expressed the desire to convene an international conference on the Israel-Palestinian front, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is what they are pushing now,” Ashrawi said.
‘Act with Determination’
Netanyahu said he regrets that innocent civilians were killed in the violence yesterday and pinned blame on Hamas, which he said launched rockets at Israel while using civilians as a human shield.
“Israel has no intention of bringing about a deterioration in the situation,” Netanyahu said in an e-mailed statement. “At the same time, the Israeli military will act with determination to protect Israel’s civilians.”
The Israeli army said in a statement that both of the strikes in Gaza were aimed at Palestinians firing mortar shells and rockets at southern Israel.
A group of masked militants fired mortar shells at Israel from near a playground where teenagers were playing soccer, said 28-year-old Mohammed, an eyewitness who asked that his full name be withheld for fear of reprisal. He said minutes after the mortars were fired the Israelis shot back.
Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, ending a partnership government with Abbas’s Fatah after winning parliamentary elections the previous year. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the European Union and the U.S.
At least 19 Gazans have been injured in the current round of violence, according to Adham Abu Selmeya, chief of emergency services in Gaza, who confirmed yesterday’s deaths. He said an eighth man was clinically dead from Israeli shelling.
Drive to Mediate
Abbas met yesterday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who told reporters afterwards he was concerned about peace efforts in the wake of continuing turmoil in the region, according to the Kremlin. Medvedev, on a visit to Jericho in January, renewed a call Russia first made last year for a Middle East peace conference to be held in Russia.
“Moscow has long considered itself one of the countries in the front line to mediate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The fact that Moscow is inviting both sides no doubt demonstrates its drive to be a mediator.”
Netanyahu is scheduled to meet Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov tomorrow to discuss the peace process, Iran, changes going on in the region, bi-lateral relations and economic cooperation, an Israeli official said, speaking anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.
Israel’s relations with Russia have been strained by Moscow’s arm sales to its enemies, including Syria and Iran. Israel protested Russia’s announced sale last September of anti-ship Yakhont cruise missiles worth more than $300 million sales to Syria. Russia last year scrapped an $800 million delivery of S-300 air defense systems to Iran in compliance with U.N.- imposed international sanctions.
Israel “has not much leverage” to influence Russian arms sales, said Amnon Sella, a Russian-studies expert at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. “With the Middle East in upheaval, it is very important for Russia to maintain its position in the region, and one of the ways it does so is through the sale of weapons systems.”