Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas agreed Sunday to hold their first summit since Israel’s pullout from Gaza as part of their efforts to restart the stalled Middle East peace process, officials from both sides said.
The announcement came as a new flare-up in fighting — blamed for the cancellation of a previously scheduled summit — eased in recent days.
Israeli officials said Sunday they were suspending the wide-ranging offensive against Palestinian militants following a lull in rocket attacks against Israeli towns, but said they would restart the operation if the rocket fire resumed. The officials said the operation succeeded in weakening militants’ ability to attack Israel from Gaza.
As the offensive wound down, Hamas militants waged gunbattles with Palestinian police across Gaza City on Sunday night that killed two people — one bystander and one police officer — and wounded at least 50 others, including 10 police officers, according to the Palestinian Interior Ministry.
Egyptian mediators worked to negotiate an end to the gunfights, Palestinian officials said, and Gaza residents called in to a local radio station pleading with Hamas to stop the fighting. The gunfights came just three days after Hamas agreed to respect a ban on carrying weapons in public as part of an effort to bring order to Gaza’s chaotic streets.
Abbas called Sharon on Sunday to offer holiday wishes ahead of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which begins Monday night.
No date set
During the conversation the leaders decided to meet soon, though no date for the summit was announced, and also agreed to “tighten cooperation and to work together to advance the peace process,” Sharon’s office said.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said preparations for the summit would begin in the coming days.
Sharon and Abbas originally had been scheduled to meet Sunday, but that meeting was canceled after Israel launched its offensive two weeks ago in response to a barrage of rockets fired by Gaza militants.
Israeli airstrikes during the offensive killed four militants in pinpoint attacks and destroyed buildings purportedly used to produce and store weapons. Israel also arrested more than 400 suspected militants in the West Bank.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet the offensive had dealt a tough blow to the Hamas militant group, and was meant to send a stern message that Israel will not tolerate attacks from Gaza, which it withdrew from last month after 38 years of occupation.
Militants have not fired rockets into Israel since Tuesday, the army said.
Israeli forces remained on high alert, Mofaz told the Cabinet. “The operation is not over,” he said, according to participants in the meeting.
However, Israeli security officials said the operation was informally halted over the weekend and will only restart if the rocket attacks resume. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of security regulations.
Israel has not carried out an airstrike since Thursday, but Gaza was wracked by internal fighting Sunday.
Hamas blamed the Palestinian Authority for the violence, saying it started after police attempted to arrest the son of Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the former Hamas leader who was slain in an Israeli airstrike last year.
A gunbattle broke out, and Hamas claimed Mohammed Rantisi’s car was riddled with bullets but he was not injured.
‘Playing with the blood of our people’
Armed Hamas militants then stormed the police stations in the Shati refugee camp and in two other Gaza City neighborhoods, according to Palestinian officials.
“Hamas bears full responsibility for the result of these acts and the serious violation of law and order and playing with the blood of our people,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Abbas is under international pressure to disarm Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups. Abbas refuses to confront the militants, fearing civil war, and instead has tried to co-opt them by inviting them to participate in Palestinian legislative elections.
Sharon opposes Hamas’ participation in the election and told the Cabinet it violated the internationally backed “road map” peace plan, which calls on the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups, Israeli media reported.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week said Hamas cannot participate in Palestinian politics if it remains armed, but she stopped short of calling for a ban on Hamas’ participation in the elections.
“We do, I think, need to give the Palestinians some space to try and reconcile their national politics, but they’re going to eventually have to disarm these groups,” she said.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Rice’s comments reflect “American aggression” against the Palestinians.
Also Sunday, Israel warned its citizens against traveling to Egypt’s Sinai peninsula during the upcoming Jewish holidays because Arab militants were planning to kidnap Israeli tourists there.
Egyptian security is aware of the activity of the militant cells and acting to thwart attacks, Arditi said.
During the holiday season last year, more than 30 people died in bombings at a luxury hotel in the Sinai resort area of Taba, just over the Israeli border, and in a nearby beach camp. At least 64 people were killed July 23 in terrorist attacks in Sinai’s main resort of Sharm el-Sheik.