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Israeli, Palestinian leaders agree to meet

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet to try to halt two weeks of violence that has seen southern Israel battered by rockets and Gaza pummeled by airstrikes.
Israeli soldiers sit on top of an armore
Israeli soldiers sit atop an armored personnel carrier as it rolls into the northern Gaza Strip on Monday.Menahem Kahana / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet to try to halt two weeks of violence that has seen southern Israel battered by rockets and Gaza pummeled by airstrikes.

Abbas hopes to line up Palestinian factions behind a truce deal before next week’s meeting, but the fire shows no sign of letting up. Four Palestinian militants were killed in fighting Tuesday, while three others died while mishandling explosives, Palestinian officials said.

Abbas and Olmert promised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in March to meet every two weeks to try to get peace talks moving again. But they have since met only once — in Jerusalem on April 15.

In the interim, a late-November truce between Israel and Gaza militants has collapsed under Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli retaliation, making another meeting all the more urgent.

No venue has been set, but the West Bank town of Jericho has been proposed. Olmert’s office said he intends to demand that Palestinians halt their rocket fire on southern Israeli towns bordering Gaza. Palestinian officials said the meeting would take place June 7; Olmert’s office did not confirm the date.

Hamas, which has partnered with Abbas’ Fatah in the Palestinians’ ruling coalition government, has been the main force behind the more than 250 rockets that have been fired in the past two weeks. Two Israeli civilians have been killed and thousands have fled the frequently targeted town of Sderot.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli troops arrested Palestinian legislator Jamal Tirawi of Fatah, who has close ties to the movement’s violent offshoot, and was wanted for involvement in attacks on Israel. In the past year, Israel has arrested dozens of Hamas lawmakers, but Tirawi was the first to be detained from Fatah.

Israeli aircraft, meanwhile, have carried out dozens of sorties against Hamas rocket squads and installations, killing some 50 Palestinians, most of them militants.

Abbas truce plan
Abbas is trying to work out a truce agreement with Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups. He said he would take a deal to Israel once he got militants’ approval.

“All problems and difficulties can find a solution through negotiations,” he said.

Under his plan, Gaza militants would halt rocket fire for a month to allow for negotiations on a more comprehensive cease-fire that would include the West Bank. Should calm take hold, he hopes to cement it by deploying security forces loyal to his Fatah movement in eastern and northern Gaza to guard against rocket-launching.

On Monday, Abbas appealed to militants to take the first step in forging a new cease-fire with Israel, saying the alternative would be the collapse of the Palestinian coalition government.

“The truce project means all acts by all parties stop, the Palestinians first and the Israelis, so we can move after to the West Bank,” Abbas told AP Television News.

The militants have said there could be no truce if Israel keeps up its attacks and refuses to extend any Gaza cease-fire to the West Bank, site of frequent Israeli arrest sweeps against militants. Israel has been cool to the idea of applying the truce to West Bank.

In remarks to parliament Tuesday, Olmert reasserted the position that no Palestinian acting against Israeli civilians would be immune from reprisal: “We will continue to strike them.”

Israeli officials have not confirmed that Hamas’ political leaders were possible targets. Israeli missiles have landed near the homes of two Hamas leaders, including Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, but the military has denied they were targets.

U.N. envoy weighs in
Also Tuesday, John Dugard, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s investigator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, urged the U.S., the U.N., Russia and the European Union to fully recognize the Palestinian government — including Hamas members — as an “indispensable requirement” to peace.

Israel has consistently rejected Dugard’s reports and statements as one-sided. In March he compared the Jewish state’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid — comments that Israeli officials called “inflammatory.”

The Quartet has said it will only recognize those in the Palestinian government who accept key principles — Israel’s right to exist, previous agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization, and renunciation of violence.