Jimmy Carter plans to meet a fuel-short Hamas

The former president arrived in Israel Sunday as Palestinians in Gaza continued to cope with an Israeli-imposed fuel blockade.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Carter: He plans to meet with militant group Hamas.
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    Idle boats: In Gaza's seaport, Palestinian fishermen say a fuel shortage has forced them to stay on shore.
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    A Palestinian works at the Gaza Strip's main power supply plant. Israel blocked shipments of fuel to the territory last week, which could halt electricity supplies in the next few days.
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Israel blocked fuel supplies from entering Gaza for a fourth day Sunday, exacerbating a new energy shortage in the blighted coastal territory during a spike in cross-border fighting that has left at least 14 Palestinians dead.

And as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met again Sunday, for the second time in less than a week, President Jimmy Carter arrived in the region in an effort to try a new approach: engage Hamas diplomatically.

The former president has been boycotted by Mr. Olmert and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni for arranging a meeting with Hamas political chief Khaled Meshal in Syria, but a series of public appearances in Israel both before and after the Hamas meeting marks a gambit of public diplomacy with Islamic militants that could avoid a new Gaza flare-up.

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"Maybe if he brings back a clear message from [Mr. Mehsal] it will change the atmosphere, and public opinion might change," says Akiva Eldar, a diplomatic commentator for the Haaretz newspaper. "But this government and the US administration aren't inclined to change their attitude. He is going to try to communicate with the Israeli public over their heads, which can be effective."

Mr. Carter will spend most of the week in Israel and the West Bank before moving on to Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, where Mehsal has his headquarters. In addition to meetings with President Shimon Peres and Israeli Trade Minister Eli Yishai, he will also meet with the parents of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who has been held in Gaza by Hamas for nearly two years.

The former president then returns to Israel to debrief his interlocutors before leaving the region.

Israeli officials have said the visit has stirred "outrage" while the US State Department has publicly frowned on Carter's freelance diplomacy. The former president is undermining their policy of boycotting Hamas for its support of terrorism and its opposition to recognizing Israel.

Still, the shuttle mission comes at a critical juncture. Pressure on Gaza began rising last Wednesday after two Israelis were killed at the Nahal Oz border gasoline terminal by a group of Palestinian militants who made a rare penetration of the military's security cordon around the strip.

Israel has since refused to renew shipments of petrol, diesel and cooking gas to the Gaza Strip, blaming Hamas for allowing militants to target the last lines of supply to a civilian population under a steadily tightening economic siege.

Energy officials in Gaza warned that the power station that supplies the territory of 1.4 million people with 30 percent of its electricity was teetering on the brink of shutting down. Israeli officials pointed out that Hamas has two days of fuel to power the generator.

"This industrial diesel fuel supply is empty and the generator will stop within hours," said Mahmoud Huzenda, head of an association of Gaza fuel distributors.

The energy crunch has triggered warnings from Hamas of a repeat from earlier this year, when power blackouts gave way to hundreds of thousands of frustrated Gazans surging over the Egyptian border to temporarily break the siege. Having resealed the border, Egypt has warned the Palestinians that it will use force to prevent another border breach.

Meanwhile, Israel has stepped up its military activity inside the Gaza Strip aimed at keeping Palestinian gunmen at a distance from the fence that separates it from Israel.

The offensive, which included Israeli ground troops and tanks, left several children dead over the weekend. On Sunday, a barrage of Palestinian retaliatory mortars landed just a few feet away from the Israeli general who heads the military's southern command.

In Jerusalem, two tracks of diplomacy sought to stem a rising tide of hostility in Gaza.

Though the Olmert-Abbas meeting was a surprise, an Israeli spokesperson for the prime minister said that the summit had been planned for the eve of an upcoming visit to the US by the Palestinian president.

Israel and the Palestinians have been under pressure from both Egypt and the US to avoid a new border breach and to step up momentum for peace talks.

"I hope [the summit] is to avoid a crisis, because if so, it's a good indication," said Gershon Baskin, the codirector of the Israeli Palestinian Center for Research and Information. "It seems logical that if Israel is moving forward then they're want to be coordinating any moves with Abbas."

At the same time as the Olmert-Abbas meeting, Carter was being hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres. Although Mr. Peres has few powers in the largely ceremonial position, his status as Israel's elder statesman makes it likely that he could be used as a quiet channel of communication between the Israeli government and Hamas.

Israel has reportedly been using Egypt for intermittent negotiations with Hamas over a prisoner swap to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was abducted from inside Israel to Gaza in June 2006.

Although Carter ruffled Israeli sensibilities last year after his book came out in which he compared Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to South African apartheid, he is remembered fondly for mediating the peace treaty with Egypt, the Jewish state's first-ever normalization of relations with its neighbors.

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