Palestinians in Gaza worry about becoming the 'forgotten war'

Wednesday, Israeli artillery killed 13 Palestinians; eight were suspected militants. The economic crisis worsens.

As fighting between Israel and Hizbullah continues to rage in Lebanon and northern Israel, Palestinians find themselves at the margins of a regional conflict that has shifted attention away from their six-year uprising for the first time.

The two–week war between Israel with the radical Shiite militia has also highlighted the Hizbullah-Iran alliance as a major Middle East flashpoint that has overshadowed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And at times, a resolution to the ongoing Gaza clashes has been seen as contingent upon an eventual cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hizbullah.

"The Palestinians have to prove that they are not in the same basket, and that they should not be punished for the Lebanese cause," said Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based political analyst. "We have our own political agenda. We need a political solution. What is going on in Lebanon is different. Hizbullah has no political agenda. Lebanon is not occupied by Israel."

Palestinians have alleged that the fighting in Lebanon has given Israel a free hand in incursions into the Gaza Strip, sparked by the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier there last month, which has left dozens of civilians dead.

Wednesday, Israeli aircraft and artillery barrages in Gaza killed 13 Palestinians – eight were suspected militants, a spokesman from Hamas and Islamic Jihad said, but one of the dead was a young girl.

Meanwhile, the economic crisis from an international boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority has continued to worsen, as crossings into Gaza remain shut, and food shortages become chronic.

"There have been minutes and days when the Palestinian issue wasn't on the radar," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator and aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "But it's more than that. We're the forgotten war. [Monday], there were seven Palestinians killed in Gaza. Does anybody know that?"

During a brief visit in Ramallah on Tuesday to meet Mr. Abbas, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to calm concern that the international community had forgotten the ongoing fighting in the Gaza Strip.

"Even as the Lebanon situation resolves we must remain focused on what is happening here in the Palestinian territories.... It is important that we end the Gaza crisis," said Rice.

And yet, the Hizbullah-Israel war has even distracted Palestinians. Outside of the presidential complex where Ms. Rice and Abbas met, several hundred Palestinian demonstrators chanted, "Rice out! Hizbullah in!"

The visit was an important gesture to bolster support for Abbas, the moderate Palestinian leader whose party's power was dealt a major blow when Hamas took over the Palestinian Authority following a January referendum. One US official said that the meeting was meant as a signal that Abbas remains a "functioning and effective" president of the Palestinian Authority.

But some analysts caution that the fighting between Israel and Hizbullah threatens to undermine moderate Arab leaders like Abbas who have preferred diplomacy over militancy to bring peace .

"Abbas needs to show his people that he's a key player, that he is an important part of whatever the world wants to do with this conflict," said Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab. "He has to do more than Hamas has done by kidnapping the soldier."

To be sure, earlier this week, Abbas's office was able to obtain $50 million in aid from the Arab League to pay for a fraction of overdue Palestinian public salaries – only the second payout since February.

In Abbas's remarks following the meeting Tuesday, the Palestinian president told Rice that as the US government seeks to establish a set of principles that resolves the roots of violence in the region, it must also end the Israeli occupation of areas claimed by Palestinians as part of a future state.

Hizbullah's July 12 abduction of two Israeli soldiers from the Lebanon border came two weeks after Hamas militants snatched 19–year–old Gilad Shalit during a raid on an Israeli armored vehicle at the Gaza border.

The kidnappings were initially described as "heroic" by Mohammad Nazzal, the militant Islamic group's political chief in Lebanon.

But some local Hamas politicians say they are unsure whether the Hizbullah raid will buoy the Palestinian cause.

"This is something that cannot decided," said Abdel Rahman Zaidan, a Hamas–appointed Palestinian minister for public works. "It's not a benefit all the way. It took the attention of the world from concentrating on what is going on in Gaza, the killing and the destruction."

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