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Israel Apologizes For Civilian Deaths

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apologized Thursday for the deaths of Palestinian civilians in recent Israeli air strikes after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at an informal breakfast in Jordan.

Some 13 Palestinian civilians have been killed in Israeli air strikes in the past week, including two people in a Gaza house on Wednesday and three children in Gaza on Tuesday.

Olmert said he felt "deep regret for the death of innocent Palestinians."

"It is against our policy and I am very, very sorry," he added.

Later, speaking at an economic conference in Jerusalem, Olmert apologized "from the depths of my being" for civilian deaths in recent airstrikes in Gaza, but he added, "Israel will continue to carry out targeted attacks against terrorists and those who try to harm Israeli citizens."

In other developments:

  • The Islamic militant group Hamas, which heads the Palestinian Authority, may be softening its position toward Israel, agreeing to sections of a document calling for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. That implies recognition of Israel's right to exist within the pre-1967 borders, reports . Hamas is under pressure from Palestinian moderates to soften its position, in a bid to end international sanctions that have crippled the Palestinian economy. Palestinian factions hope to finalize the document in a few days.
  • The International Red Cross humanitarian movement has extended membership to Israel, after a 60-year struggle. Israel had objected to the symbol of the cross and wanted to be allowed to use its symbol, the Red Star of David, reports Berger. In a landmark decision, the Red Cross approved the use of a neutral symbol, the Red Crystal.

    It was the first time Olmert and Abbas have met since Olmert was elected three months ago. Both sides said the meeting was positive, but pointed out that it was not negotiations, reports Berger. The two leaders are expected to hold a formal meeting in the near future to discuss reviving peace talks.

    However, Olmert cautioned that serious negotiations were unlikely until the Hamas-led Palestinian government recognized Israel.

    "I think that Abu Mazen is a genuine person and he comes here with good intentions," Olmert said after meeting Abbas, using the Palestinian leader's nickname.

    "But to the best of my knowledge, he is not the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority," Olmert said. Abbas, a moderate elected separately last year, is in an intense power struggle with Hamas politicians, including Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

  • Olmert said the Palestinian government was "controlled by a terrorist group" and "boycotted by the entire world."

    "We discussed one point — how to prepare for a forthcoming meeting," Abbas said after returning to Ramallah. "Preparations for the meeting will begin next week," he said.

    An Abbas aide, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said the meeting would happen "in the coming two weeks," and that Abbas was awaiting word from Israel about when and where to schedule it.

    "From Olmert's first day in office, we informed them that we are ready for negotiations and to set at the table, and we are waiting for the Israelis," he said.

    Olmert's vow to continue targeting militant leaders was preceded Thursday by similar pronouncements from other Israeli officials.

    "We will have to find a way to separate between the civilians and the terrorists," said government spokesman Raanan Gissin.

    On June 9, a beach explosion killed another eight Palestinian civilians. Palestinians blame Israel for that incident, but Israel has denied responsibility, saying the blast came from a mine Palestinian militants had planted on the beach.

    "We have to fight terrorism and we are doing it," Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shakedi, the Israeli air force commander, said, adding that the air strikes were "the most accurate and the best possible option without launching a broad and very significant (ground) operation."

    After their breakfast, Olmert and Abbas both said they had been in regular contact by telephone.

    They shook hands, embraced and kissed each other on the cheek. Asked about his handshake with Olmert, Abbas said, "It was very warm, very warm."

    Leaving the meeting, Olmert nodded to reporters when asked if he would meet Abbas again.

    The breakfast took place in Petra, a 2,000-year-old city carved into Jordan's rose-red mountains, on the sidelines of a two-day gathering of Nobel prize winners. Olmert, Abbas and Abdullah sat at a round breakfast table with the Dalai Lama, a deputy Thai prime minister and Elie Weisel, a Holocaust survivor and the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

    Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres, also a Nobel laureate, said Thursday that Israel was not ready for "serious" talks until an internal dialogue among Palestinian factions was resolved.

    "To negotiate completely and seriously, we have to see what happens on the Palestinian side, and the Palestinian side is, until now, inconclusive. So we cannot enter serious negotiations yet," he said.

    Asked whether he considered the dialogue positive, Peres said: "Not if Hamas wins."

    Abbas' Fatah movement and the Islamic militant group Hamas have clashed repeatedly since Hamas won parliamentary elections in January.

    Abbas has been seeking to persuade Hamas to accept a document implicitly recognizing Israel as way out of a crippling world aid boycott. If Hamas continues to reject the document, prepared by a group of prominent Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel, Abbas plans to bring the idea to the voters in a July 26 referendum.

    Abbas said Thursday that he hoped his dialogue with Hamas would "reach a positive outcome ... so the world can interact with us and end its siege."

    Meanwhile, a Hamas lawmaker and spokesman, Mushir Al Masri, said his group was not optimistic about future negotiations between Olmert and Abbas.

    "Experience has proven that such meetings can't bring anything to our people," he said. "Our people don't trust these meetings," he added.

    Peres described Olmert and Abbas' contact Thursday as "fruitful and positive."

    "Every meeting has its importance, but these aren't negotiations," he said, adding that "mountains don't meet, but people do."

    Abu Rdeneh said that "talking with Mr. Olmert is a good thing to do, but we are looking forward to the formal meeting that will take place in a couple of weeks."

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