Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have agreed to start drafting elements of a proposed peace accord, the chief Palestinian negotiator said Friday.
Ahmed Qureia, the veteran negotiator heading the Palestinian team, made it clear the decision did not necessarily reflect agreement on major issues. But this would be the first time since negotiations resumed more than six months ago that anything would be committed to paper.
"We agreed with the Israelis to begin writing the positions," Qureia told reporters late Friday.
Israeli government officials would not comment and Qureia did not explain why the two sides had agreed at this point to begin drafting a text.
However, the timing coincides with a corruption scandal in Israel that threatens to unseat Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Should Israel find itself going to early elections, polls show Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes major territorial concessions to the Palestinians, becoming Israel's next premier. However, drafting during previous rounds of peace talks has not always meant that those positions were then preserved for future negotiators.
Qureia did not say what issue the two sides would start with. If they reach agreement on any issue, then they will draft a single provision, he said. If not, they will lay out on paper their divergent views, he added.
Israel and the Palestinians resumed peace talks in late November under U.S. prodding. Continued Israeli settlement construction and Israeli security concerns have clouded negotiations, and both sides have expressed doubt about achieving the declared goal of clinching a final accord by the end of the year.
Qureia confirmed that Israeli peace negotiators have offered the Palestinians land in exchange for territory where major West Bank settlements lie, but he termed their offer "unacceptable."
Palestinians would like to incorporate all of the West Bank into a future state, but their moderate president, Mahmoud Abbas, has acknowledged that Israel, with U.S. backing, likely will hold on to blocs where tens of thousands of settlers live. In exchange, Abbas is prepared to relinquish some West Bank land for an equal amount of Israeli land.
'Land swap offer'
Qureia would not say how much territory Israel offered, where it is located or how much West Bank land the Jewish state proposed to keep under a final peace accord with the Palestinians.
"The Israelis presented a land swap offer, but this offer is unacceptable to us," he said.
Other Palestinian officials have said Israel has presented maps giving it 10 percent of the West Bank in exchange for southern Israeli territory near the Gaza Strip.
Early Friday, one Palestinian militant was killed and two were injured in a gunbattle that erupted after Israeli tanks and bulldozers crossed into central Gaza. The military said its forces entered to prevent rocket launches.
Fifteen Palestinians — some Hamas militants, others civilians — were wounded in a second aerial attack on a Hamas base in northern Gaza later Friday, doctors said. The missiles destroyed a building, witnesses said.
Hamas also fired four rockets toward Israel, the group said. One landed in the rocket-scarred town of Sderot, damaging six cars, the military said.
6-year-old girl killed
The latest flare-up in violence began Thursday when a Hamas mortar killed an Israeli and injured four others in southern Israel. Israel then sent aircraft after a rocket squad, the military said, but apparently missed their target, killing a 6-year-old Palestinian girl.
Olmert warned that Israel was close to abandoning efforts to bring a truce to the volatile area and was seriously considering a large-scale incursion.
"According to the information we have now, the pendulum is much closer to a decision on a harsh operation," Olmert said soon after returning from a brief visit to the U.S.
Egypt has been trying for months to mediate a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza's Islamic militant Hamas rulers.
But both sides have set tough conditions for a truce and Israeli leaders are under pressure at home to respond militarily because the weapons in the hands of Gaza militants have become more deadly.