Israelis, Palestinians cite progress
Published: Thursday, January 27, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 26, 2005 at 11:27 p.m.
JERUSALEM - Israeli and Palestinian negotiators achieved significant progress Wednesday toward ending violence and resuming peace talks, completing a plan for deploying Palestinian forces in the southern Gaza Strip and aiming for a summit within two weeks between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
And there were signals that Condoleezza Rice, the Bush administration's newly confirmed secretary of state, would be joining the peace process soon.
"She is planning to go to the region," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said after a meeting with Rice on Wednesday.
New violence, however, underscored the fragility of the new momentum for peace. A Palestinian preschooler in southern Gaza was killed by Israeli gunfire after militants fired a rocket at Israel. Israeli troops shot a Palestinian militant to death and wounded two others in a West Bank arrest raid.
About 100 Jewish settlers disrupted a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian commanders in southern Gaza, throwing stones and slashing tires of participants' vehicles.
None of this appeared to spoil a new flurry of peace moves offering the prospect of an end to four years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.
A senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and a Palestinian Cabinet minister sat down together to discuss the summit idea and an emerging truce deal - the first high-level diplomatic contact between the two sides in months.
"These talks are promising in all aspects," Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said.
Palestinians said they expect to take control of five West Bank cities within 10 days, and Israel indicated it would refrain from targeted killings of militants.
After cutting off ties with Palestinians two weeks ago in response to a militant attack in Gaza that killed six Israelis, Israel resumed diplomatic contacts on Wednesday.
Sharon aide Dov Weisglass and Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat met for two hours.
Palestinian official Hassan Abu Libdeh said a summit could be held within two weeks. Sharon spokesman Ranaan Gissin confirmed a summit is planned but said "our main concern is security - that the Palestinians continue to take additional steps to end the violence, terrorism and incitement."
Palestinians want the agenda to focus on other issues, such as the release of Palestinian prisoners and stopping Israel's construction of the separation barrier in the West Bank.
Speaking in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Abbas said the Palestinians asked the Israelis to release "an initial group of prisoners, and we asked that the release be in coordination with us."
Abbas also expressed concern about an arrest raid Wednesday in the West Bank town of Qalqiliya, where the army shot three men it said were wanted militants. Maher Abu Sneineh, 24, was killed and two were seriously wounded.
"The Israelis are continuing with these operations," Abbas said. "They know that we are fully committed to calming things down and they have to be responsible. They have to stop these operations so as not to ruin our efforts."
In Gaza, masked Palestinians claiming to represent the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades threatened to renew attacks if Israel does not stop such operations within 24 hours.
Security officials said Abu Sneineh was planning a suicide bombing attack in which a female bomber would blow herself up in the Israeli city of Kfar Saba.
A senior U.S. envoy, William Burns, arrived Wednesday for talks with top Israeli and Palestinian officials. After meeting Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres, Burns said Washington is committed to taking advantage of what it sees as "a very promising moment."
Abbas has won wide praise in recent days for securing a pledge from militant groups such as Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigades to call a temporary halt to attacks against Israelis.
That achievement, combined with Arafat's death and Israel's planned withdrawal this year from the Gaza Strip, is reviving hope that Israelis and Palestinians can resume peace talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state. Israel charged that Arafat was tainted with violence but considers Abbas a pragmatic moderate.
"We've been very encouraged by steps that Mr. Abbas has taken on security, by the Israeli reaction to those steps," Burns said.
Palestinian policemen already have deployed in northern Gaza, preventing rocket attacks against Israelis for the past five days. The Israeli military said at least one rocket was fired from southern Gaza on Wednesday, however, where the police have not yet deployed.
Israeli troops responding to a rocket fired by militants in central Gaza also killed a young Palestinian girl in the town of Deir el-Balah, her relatives said.
Israeli and Palestinian commanders met twice Wednesday at a key junction in southern Gaza to finalize the deployment of Palestinian forces in the area, and Israel approved the plan, officials said. Both sides denied reports the deployment had begun.
Also Wednesday, Abbas told his security chiefs to get ready to assume control of five West Bank towns within 10 days, participants in the meeting said. The cities are Ramallah, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya, Jericho and Bethlehem.
Israel reoccupied West Bank population centers in a 2002 military offensive against Palestinian militants. Troops have since pulled back to the outskirts of most towns but frequently raid the towns in search of militants.
Israeli officials said the military has agreed to halt so-called targeted killings of militants as long as they refrain from violence. Dozens of fugitives and scores of bystanders have been killed in such attacks - usually missiles fired from helicopters - since the Palestinian uprising began in 2000.
"We will exercise our right of self-defense and prevent terror attacks," Gissin said. "Beyond that we are not going to initiate any military activity."
Abbas was to leave Friday to visit Egypt, Jordan, Russia, Turkey and Switzerland.
If he obtains U.S. and Egyptian guarantees that Israel will halt military operations, he is expected to return to the Gaza Strip for a formal cease-fire declaration, Palestinian officials said.
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