Settlement question

Nour Odeh, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Ramallah, said the issue of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is likely to be on the agenda during Mitchell's talks with Palestinian leaders.

"Settlements will be on the agenda, especially knowing Mitchell's initial assessment of the grave consequences that settlement construction has on the peace process," she said.

Gaza's child victims

 
 Video: Children suffer
 Video: Born into war
 Naming the deceased

"In his 2001 report, Mitchell said that Palestinians view settlements as the ultimate way that Israel imposes, prolongs and entrenches its occupation of the West Bank.

"When he came in 2001, there were about 200,000 Israeli settlers living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, against international law. That number has since jumped by about 100,000 Israeli settlers."

Palestinians will tell Mitchell they want to achieve tangible results rather than committing to a peace process they feel has failed them, Odeh said. 

"That will begin by dismantling settlements, ending the occupation, taking apart those 600 Israeli checkpoints, and many other Israeli measures that undermine not only the Palestinian Authority but also the very prospect of a two-state solution."

Tensions high

Mitchell's meeting with Abbas, which will be followed by talks with Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, comes amid continuing tensions between Fatah and Hamas, which has de facto control of Gaza.

IN DEPTH

Profile: George Mitchell

Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas who is based in Damascus, on Wednesday talked about creating an alternative body to the Palestinian Legislative Organisation (PLO), which is recognised as the sole representative of the Palestinian people.

"We can announce, after the steadfastness and victory achieved in Gaza, that we will work on establishing a national platform body - an ultimate point of reference for all Palestinians, whether inside or outside - to contain all Palestinian plans, trends, and national figures will be included as well," he said.

While the prospect of a national unity government between the rival parties appears slim, a Hamas spokesman told Al Jazeera that the organisation is keen to find common ground with Fatah.

"I think we are interested in achieving national unity among the Palestinians. We don't need more division. Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions have to very quickly sit around the negotiating table," Ghazi Hamad said.

Hamas is also willing to work with all sides among the Palestinians in order to facilitate the reconstruction of Gaza, he said.

"We want to help people. We don't want all the money to go to Hamas or to the government. We are ready to co-operate with all people - including the Palestinian Authority [which is led by Abbas]."

Mitchell's appeal

Speaking on Wednesday after meeting Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, and Simon Peres, the country's president, Mitchell said that arms smuggling into Hamas-run Gaza must end.

But he also called for Israel to end its blockade of the territory, lest the unilateral Israeli and Hamas ceasefires fail.

More than 1,300 Palestinians were killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza over the course of the 22-day major offensive, while 13 Israelis were killed. 

Palestinians are calling for illegal settlement
activity in the West Bank to end [AFP] 
Mitchell said in Jerusalem there needed to be "a cessation of hostilities, an end to smuggling and re-opening of the crossings based on 2005 agreements" in order to consolidate the ceasefires.

Olmert has insisted Israel will only open Gaza's borders if Hamas released Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier the Palestinian group seized in June 2006.

"A permanent opening of the [Gaza border] crossings will be linked to solving the issue of Gilad Shalit," an Israeli official quoted Olmert as telling the US envoy.

Mitchell had flown into Israel from Egypt on the second leg of his trip, under instructions from Barack Obama, the US president, to "engage vigorously" in an effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Egypt has been holding separate talks with Israel and Hamas as well as representatives of other Palestinian factions.

Ahmed Abul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister, said the talks have "evolved positively" and a "permanent" truce could be agreed in the first week of February.