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Palestinians agree to resume peace negotiations

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday he will resume peace talks with Israel.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat are seen in Ramallah, in the West Bank, on Tuesday.Peter Dejong / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday he will resume peace talks with Israel.

Backing off a threat to boycott negotiations until Israel reaches a truce with Hamas militants in Gaza, Abbas described the peace process as "a strategic choice."

Abbas suspended talks earlier this week to protest Israel's military crackdown on Gaza militants barraging southern Israel with rockets.

"We have the intention of resuming the peace process," he said in a statement. Earlier Wednesday, Abbas said he would not resume talks until a truce was reached.

Abbas did not say when talks would restart, but visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said a U.S. general overseeing implementation of "the road map" peace plan would hold his first joint meeting with Israelis and Palestinians next week.

In January, President Bush appointed Lt. Gen. William Fraser III to monitor both sides' compliance with the road map, a milestone-based plan that has been the basis of talks that resumed in November after a seven-year break.

Rice said both sides need to carry out road map obligations to have "robust" peace negotiations. The plan's initial stage calls on Israel to stop settlement activity and obliges the Palestinians to clamp down on militants. Abbas, however, controls only the West Bank and has no influence over Gaza, which has been ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas since a violent takeover in June.

The return to negotiations has been plagued by violence and continued Israeli construction on lands the Palestinians claim for a future state. Tensions peaked over the past week after Gaza militants extended the range of their fire closer to Israel's center. Israel struck back with an assault that Gaza officials say killed more than 120 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians.

Rice met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert late Tuesday and had meetings scheduled with Israel's foreign and defense ministers Wednesday before departing for Europe.

Baby killed by bullet
After nightfall Tuesday, about 25 Israeli armored vehicles briefly entered southern Gaza, clashing with militants and killing a local Islamic Jihad leader. The Israeli tanks fired shells and attack helicopters fired missiles during the clashes, witnesses said. A 1-month-old baby was killed by a ricocheting bullet, Palestinian Health Ministry official Moaiya Hassanain said.

Israeli defense officials said it was a “pinpoint” operation aimed at Gaza militants. It came just a day after Israel ended a destructive and bloody ground operation in northern Gaza against Palestinian rocket squads.

After meeting Abbas on Tuesday, Rice told a news conference that negotiations between moderate Palestinians and the Israelis are the only solution. At the same time, she defended Israel's right to seek out militants who use Gaza to launch rockets at southern Israel.

"I understand the difficulties of the current moment," she said. "We all must keep an eye on what is important."

The Bush administration has staked peace hopes on Abbas' West Bank government, while freezing out Hamas, which is pledged to Israel's destruction.

Attempt to overthrow Hamas?
Some Israeli officials are calling for a large-scale invasion of Gaza to stop the rocket attacks, which this week have ranged as far as the coastal city of Ashkelon, 11 miles north of Gaza.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was quoted as saying that Israel might be forced to send troops back into the territory, but officials in her office clarified that she was referring to a military operation, not reoccupation.

“We cannot afford this kind of extreme Islamic state controlled by Hamas,” Livni told foreign diplomats in a meeting in Jerusalem, according to a ministry statement released Tuesday. Israel evacuated Gaza “not in order to come back, but we might find ourselves in a situation that we have no other alternative.”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said often that a large-scale operation is nearing, indicating that Israel might try to overthrow the Hamas regime.

However, Olmert, while warning of severe reprisals against Hamas, has hesitated to order a large invasion, expressing concern about the inevitably high casualties on both sides.