Video: Clinton strives to put mark on Mideast

updated 3/4/2009 3:18:24 PM ET 2009-03-04T20:18:24

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday promised vigorous and personal involvement in stalled Mideast peace efforts and criticized Israel's demolition of Palestinian homes in Jerusalem as "unhelpful."

Clinton also displayed strong public support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian Authority is the "only legitimate government of the Palestinian people," she told a news conference, standing next to Abbas.

The Palestinian president has steadily lost support at home, particularly after a year of inconclusive peace talks with Israel. At the same time, his Islamic militant Hamas rivals, who seized Gaza from him in 2007, are widely seen as emerging stronger from Israel's recent military offensive against them.

Talking to reporters after meeting Clinton, Abbas criticized Iran, one of the main backers of Hamas. He charged that Iran is trying to "deepen the Palestinian split" and said, "Iran needs to take care of its own issues and stay away from intervening in Palestinian affairs."

In violence Wednesday, two Islamic Jihad militants were killed in an Israeli airstrike after sundown in northern Gaza, Palestinian security and health officials said. The Israeli military said the target was a senior Islamic Jihad militant who was involved in firing rockets at the Israeli city of Ashkelon, north of Gaza.

On Tuesday, Clinton met with Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu. The hardline leader opposes the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and supports the expansion of Israeli settlements on war-won land claimed by the Palestinians, including the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

In recent days, Israel has issued orders for the demolition of dozens of Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem, saying the homes were built illegally.

Palestinians say they cannot receive proper building permits from Israeli authorities, and the planned demolitions are means to assert Israel's control over the disputed city.

"Clearly, this kind of activity is unhelpful," Clinton said, adding that she would raise it with the Israeli government as well as municipal officials in Jerusalem. She said such actions violate the "road map," a U.S.-backed peace plan.

'Demographic war'
Clinton spoke shortly after Israel issued a new order to demolish five residential buildings containing 55 apartments, said Hatem Abdul Qader, a Palestinian official on Jerusalem affairs.

"It's an open demographic war," he said. He said lawyers have challenged the orders, halting the demolitions until March 10.

Stephan Miller, a spokesman for city hall, said the buildings under demolition notice were empty and had been built illegally.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed the area. But the annexation is not internationally recognized, and the Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as capital of a future independent state.

Palestinian leaders are watching closely for signs of change in U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians were disappointed with the previous U.S. administration's failure to take Israel to task for accelerated settlement construction in 2008, at a time when the two sides were holding U.S.-backed peace talks.

Settlement expansion makes it increasingly difficult to establish an independent Palestinian state.

Abbas said Israel cannot be considered a peace partner if it keeps expanding settlements and demolishes homes in east Jerusalem. "The Israeli government has to respect its obligations under the road map and the two-state solution and completely stop all that is related to settlement and demolitions," he said.

'Vigorously engaged'
Clinton signaled that she'd be heavily involved in the region, and said her special envoy, George Mitchell, would return soon.

"The Obama administration will be vigorously engaged in efforts to forge a lasting peace between Israel, Palestinians and all of the Arab neighbors. I will remain personally engaged," she said. "This is a commitment that I carry in my heart, not just in my portfolio."

Her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, was also a frequent visitor, but made no headway in solving the conflict.

Clinton suggested Wednesday she is not considering imposing solutions, saying it's up to the two sides to reach an agreement. Clinton said she intends to hold "very constructive talks with the new Netanyahu government."

Netanyahu is still trying to form a coalition, and seems headed for a right-wing government, after being rebuffed by the centrist Kadima Party of outgoing Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

In Jerusalem on Tuesday, Clinton said that working toward the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a peace agreement with Israel "seems inescapable."

Abbas and Clinton, meanwhile, talked about the future of Hamas-ruled Gaza. After the Hamas takeover, Israel and Egypt closed the territory, a policy tacitly supported by the international community, which shuns Hamas as a terrorist group.

However, the blockade has come under renewed scrutiny following Israel's three-week military offensive against Hamas, which ended in an informal cease-fire Jan. 18. Some 15,000 homes were destroyed or damaged in the war, meant to halt Palestinian rocket fire on southern Israel, and international aid officials say Gaza's borders need to reopen to make reconstruction possible.

"We want humanitarian aid to get into Gaza in sufficient amounts to alleviate the suffering of the people in Gaza," Clinton said, but stopped short of calling for a full opening of the crossings.

Abbas called for an opening of Gaza's borders to pave the way for reconstruction.

Currently, Israel allows several dozen truckloads of aid to get into Gaza every day, but bars the entry of concrete, pipes and other materials that would be crucial for reconstruction. Israel argues that such shipments could be seized by Hamas and used for building bunkers or rockets.

In Gaza, the Hamas government condemned Clinton's comments. Spokesman Taher Nunu said her statement "was a slap in the face of those who were expecting changes in America foreign policy. She did not bring anything new. Instead, her statements show bias to the Zionist enemy."

More on Mahmoud Abbas   |  Israel   |  Gaza

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