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Hardliners on both sides protest Mideast talks

Hardline Palestinians and Israelis demonstrated against a U.S.-sponsored peace conference, denouncing the prospect of concessions and underlining the difficulties of implementing an agreement.
Image: An Israeli soldier (C) along with thousands of Jewish men and women perform a special prayer in opposition to the US-hosted Middle East peace meeting
Thousands of Israeli hardliners rallied at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Monday to protest the U.S.-hosted Middle East peace talks.David Furst / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hardline Palestinians and Israelis demonstrated against a U.S.-sponsored peace conference, denouncing the prospect of concessions to each other and underlining the difficulties of implementing any agreement.

Violence also soured the atmosphere in the region as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met the host of the conference, U.S. President Bush, in Washington on Monday. In two incidents, Israeli forces killed four Palestinians in Gaza.

In Jerusalem, more than 20,000 Israelis gathered at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, to protest the conference, set to open in Annapolis, Md., on Tuesday. Many marched to a square near the residence of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a noisy demonstration.

Hardline Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, a former premier who is a leading candidate to return to the post, denounced the conference on Monday. "The Palestinians are not lifting a finger to stop terror or recognize Israel as a Jewish state," he told Channel 2 TV. "I see this summit as a continuation of one-sided concessions."

With Olmert and Abbas away at the conference, the Islamic Hamas rulers of Gaza are staging daily demonstrations against the Annapolis gathering and Abbas, restating their rejection of the existence of a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East.

Hamas sees a 'traitor'
"The land of Palestine ... is purely owned by the Palestinians," Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said in a speech, referring to the territory that includes Israel. "No person, group, government or generation has the right to give up one inch of it."

Speaking at a meeting of 2,000 activists from local militant groups, Zahar declared, "Anyone who stands in the face of resistance or fights it or cooperates with the (Israeli) occupation against it is a traitor," a clear reference to Abbas.

Hamas seized control of Gaza from Abbas' forces in June, leaving him in charge of a pro-Western government based in the West Bank. Abbas' lack of control over Gaza has raised questions about his ability to carry out any future peace deal.

Israel has stepped up pressure on Hamas since the Gaza takeover, carrying out numerous airstrikes and ground operations to halt Palestinian attacks.

On Monday, an Israeli aircraft fired at a Palestinian squad firing mortar shells into Israel, the military said. Hamas said one member was killed in the airstrike, and medical officials said two other people were wounded.

Dozens of mourners chanting anti-Israel slogans marched through the streets, carrying the militant's body on a stretcher. A second died later of his wounds.

The military said soldiers also shot and killed two Palestinians who approached Israel's border with Gaza. Such clashes are a near daily occurrence, alongside rocket barrages at Israel by Gaza militants.

Late Monday the Israeli military said soldiers hit two armed Palestinians who were planting explosives along the Gaza-Israel fence.

Show of support in Nablus
In the West Bank city of Nablus, Muslim, Christian and Samaritan leaders gathered to offer support for the Annapolis conference, urging a peace deal fulfilling Palestinian demands.

At the conference, Bush hopes Israel and the Palestinians will formally relaunch peace talks, which broke down in violence seven years ago. The sides hope to reach a deal within a year based on the "road map," a U.S. peace plan laying out a three-stage process for the creation of a Palestinian state.