A dispute erupted Monday over the lack of Israeli secret service protection for former President Carter as he visited this border town and called rocket attacks by Palestinian militants “a despicable crime” that he hoped a cease-fire would halt.
Carter’s planned talks with the leader of the militant group Hamas and a book he published in 2006 that called Israeli policy in occupied Palestinian territories “a system of apartheid” have caused official displeasure in Israel. His efforts to meet Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and senior Cabinet ministers were rebuffed.
Israel’s Shin Bet security service, which is overseen by Olmert’s office and normally helps protect visiting dignitaries, has not assisted U.S. Secret Service agents guarding Carter.
An Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said no request had been received for such protection, which he said was automatically extended to incumbent presidents or prime ministers but not to former leaders.
Carter’s delegation responded in a statement that it had been told “unequivocally” by the lead agent of Carter’s Secret Service detail and the State Department regional security officer that “an official request for assistance had been made” to the Israelis.
In Sderot, Carter was surrounded by U.S. agents, and Israeli police provided an escort and guarded the perimeter of sites he visited.
Carter said he was “distressed” after viewing spent rockets piled in the back of the local police station.
Militants from Hamas and other groups in the Gaza Strip have fired thousands of crude rockets in the last seven years, killing 13 people and injuring hundreds. Hamas has killed scores of Israelis in suicide bombings and refuses to recognize the Jewish state, though it has proposed a conditional long-term truce.
Carter, who is expected to meet Friday with Hamas senior leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus, the Syrian capital, said he would not attempt to broker a cease-fire between the militant group and Israel.
“I’m not in the negotiating business,” he said, but added that he did want to help nudge Hamas into peace diplomacy.
In an interview with the Haaretz newspaper, Carter said he would use his meeting with Meshaal to check Hamas’ readiness to accept an Arab peace initiative, to work for the release of an Israeli soldier held in Gaza and to ascertain the fate of two others seized by the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.
In Sderot, Carter was taken to view a home shattered by a rocket two months ago. He tried to chat with Simcha Zakzak, 59, who was injured by shrapnel when the rocket crashed through the roof as she sat in the living room.
“What can I say?” she said, sitting near the wreckage, which still had not been cleared. “No one is helping.”