Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met on Tuesday to discuss preparations for a peace conference set for the fall. But Mr. Abbas warned the meeting could be "a waste of time." As a backdrop to their discussions, there were also warnings from other Israeli officials that Hamas, Abbas's rival for control of the Palestinian territories and Hizbullah, the Islamist movement in Lebanon that fought Israel to a standstill in a war last summer, are arming themselves in preparation for renewed confrontations.
Abbas appeared on Palestinian television Monday and criticized Israel's "broadbrush approach" to a conference that US officials hope might lead to Palestinian statehood despite the current fracture between the Fatah-backed West Bank government and Hamas-controlled Gaza. Abbas said the meeting would be ineffectual if it stuck to a "declaration of principles," reports Reuters.
Israeli officials have used that phrase to describe what Olmert might offer in answer to calls for rapid, final talks in detail on establishing a Palestinian state.
Hamas called the Abbas-Olmert meeting another attempt to isolate it.
"The meeting will end in complete failure. Such meetings can never achieve anything as long as the Israeli occupation continues to deny the rights of our people and continues its aggression against them," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official.
Preparations for the peace conference come a day after Israeli officials said Hizbullah and Hamas have had great success in obtaining weapons in recent months. The Associated Press reported Monday that Israel's intelligence agencies believe that Hamas has smuggled 40 tons of weapons into Gaza since its takeover of the strip last June.
A top intelligence official told the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday that Hamas is growing increasingly motivated to carry out attacks on Israeli targets.
"The chances of suicide attacks by Hamas are growing, both in Gaza and the West Bank and outside the country," said the official, according to a meeting participant whose name could not be released under Israeli civil service rules. The participant gave no evidence to support the claim, and the intelligence official's name was not released because of security concerns.
The explosives Hamas has smuggled into Gaza accounts for about half of the overall amount of weapons sneaked into the territory since Israel evacuated it two years ago, he added.
The Israelis allege that most of the weapons have been smuggled through Egypt, prompting a senior Israeli official to claim that "Egypt wants to help Hamas." Other Israeli officials say the Jewish state is in greater danger from the North. Israel's Haaretz newspaper reports that Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the country's parliament that Hizbullah has more rockets today than it did on the eve of its war with Israel last summer, during which it fired about 4,000 rockets at the country.
The rocket threat has also reduced the likelihood of any peace progress being made in the fall following Mr. Barak's statement this week that Israel won't be able to make a major withdrawal of its forces from the West Bank – something Abbas has been pleading for – for at least two years, the minimum time Barak estimates Israel needs to develop a missile interception system, Haaretz also reports.
"The things we see in Gaza do not allow us to change our actions in (the West Bank)," Barak was quoted by one of the participants as saying, referring to daily rocket fire at Israel from Gaza by Palestinian militants.
He said it would take about two and a half years to develop and deploy a defense system to protect Israel's center from potential rocket attacks from the West Bank.
All of this has led to an increase in tension between Israel and its neighbors. In an editorial on the birthday of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive in the Gaza Strip, the right-leaning Jerusalem Post argues that Hamas is set to play a "spoiler" role in any peace negotiations.
What is Hamas's game? Its specific message over Schalit is that its demands will have to be met if Israel is ever going to secure his release. But its wider point is that nobody should delude themselves that it can be ignored when negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian track are in the offing. It remains avowedly committed to a spoiler role at the first hint of progress.
…the Israeli government is also coming under a degree of pressure to acknowledge Hamas's growing weight and power and engage with it. Such interaction, it is suggested, is not just the only way to secure the release of Schalit, but also the only pragmatic means of grappling with a new reality of Hamas prominence.
But interaction now with an unreformed Hamas represents capitulation to terrorism, and can only further reduce any small likelihood of the Islamic group ever opting for reform. Meanwhile, it would discredit and further weaken the faint voices of genuine Palestinian moderation.
Meanwhile, Agence France-Presse reports that Hamas is taking further steps to consolidate its control of the Gaza Strip by seeking to muzzle the press.
Dozens of journalists staged a sit-in in Gaza on Sunday, protesting against pressure on the media by the Islamist Hamas movement that took over the territory in mid-June.
On Friday three cameramen and an AFP photographer were briefly detained by Hamas after covering a demonstration by Hamas' rival, President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement.
Hamas forces fired in the air as they dispersed the rally and sought to detain two other cameramen but were prevented from doing so by other journalists.