Senior Israeli army officers warned Thursday that if Israel did not act to strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, ‘he’ll fall, and then we’ll have to give more abatement to Hamas, which will gain power in his stead.’

Consequently, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approved Thursday series of ‘gestures’ to the Palestinians despite the continued barrage of mortar shells in the Gaza Strip.

New Israeli Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin opposed the proposal, saying there were too many warning of potential attacks.

The approved ‘gestures’ involve steps that Israel originally promised at February’s Sharm el-Sheikh summit, including, freeing an additional 400 Palestinian prisoners, allowing the return of wanted Palestinians deported to Europe following the standoff at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity in 2002, and allowing the return of Palestinians deported from the West Bank to Gaza.


All approved measures are expected to be brought to the cabinet for approval after Sharon returns from the United States later this month.

The approval likely came as a result of U.S. pressure.

U.S. security coordinator, General William Ward told Israeli officials in recent days:  ‘You complain that the Palestinians are not fulfilling their commitments, But what about your commitments?’

The decision to approve these steps is also likely to be related to Abbas’ planned visit to Washington Thursday. Abbas has complied a list of complains against Israel that Sharon hopes to deflect.

Most surprising is the approval timing.

Following an army air strike on the Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis, Palestinian fighters has fired more than 14 mortar shells at Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. Four Qassam rockest were fired at the city of Sedrot inside Israel. Israel warned the PA that if mortars are not halted, army might resume incursions into Gaza populated areas.

Army officials believe that Hamas stands behind the recent escalation, but are convinced that over the intervention of the PA Hamas halted attacks, and that Thursday shelling was launched by other Palestinian factions – primarily the Popular Resistance Committees and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Army officials still believe that Hamas due to interest in parliamentary elections is not interested in an escalation that could bring to an end the ‘calm’ period. 

On Thursday evening, Sharon’s advisor Dov Weissglas met with Palestinian official Saeb Erekat and called for an immediate halt to shelling attacks by Palestinian militants.

Weissglas warned Erekat that if the Palestinians continue shelling Israeli targets in and around the Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces will respond harshly.

Palestinian sources said Weissglas told Erekat, however, that the army won’t escalate the fighting in the Gaza Strip.

The two also agreed in principle to a June meeting between Sharon Abbas.

Also, Israeli Minister Haim Ramon met with Palestinian Minister Mohammed Dahlan Wednesday to coordinate the pullout from Gaza. Government sources said the talks were ‘difficult’ and full of mutual recriminations.