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Israel, Palestinians Talk - Maybe

Israeli and Palestinian security officials have begun indirect contacts aimed at ending a major Israeli offensive in northern Gaza, an Israeli military official said Tuesday, but the claim was denied by the Palestinians.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Palestinians delivered messages through mediators, offering to try to prevent rocket fire on Israeli towns if Israel ends the operation, which has left 68 Palestinians dead in six days.

However, Israel appears to be in no rush to end the operation. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Monday that "it will take time until we can be sure that we remove the threat of the ... rockets."

A senior Palestinian official said he was unaware of contacts with Israel, which refuses to negotiate directly with the Palestinian Authority. However, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Monday urged militants "not to give the occupation (Israel) any excuse against us," — an apparent appeal to stop the rocket fire.

The report of cease-fire contacts came as Palestinians pushed for quick adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an end to the Israeli offensive, "Days of Penitence."

Arab nations that introduced the resolution said they want a vote Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military said Tuesday it is reevaluating its claim that Palestinian militants used a U.N. vehicle to transport a homemade rocket — an apparent backing down in a high-profile confrontation with the world body.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency said it has been informed that Israel will retract the accusation.

Last week, the military distributed a video, taken from an unmanned Israeli aircraft, that showed three Palestinians near a U.N. ambulance, including one who carried an elongated object and at one point tossed it into the vehicle.

UNRWA officials insisted the object was a stretcher, not a rocket.

On Tuesday, the military removed the video from its Web site.

"We are very sure that the object placed in the ambulance could not have been a rocket," UNRWA director-general Peter Hansen told the Jerusalem Post. "It was a stretcher and the ambulance staff have made the point that they did indeed place a stretcher in the car that evening.

"You can see the cloth wing waving as he is carrying it in one hand," Hansen said.

"We don't hire terrorists," said Fred Eckhard, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Also Tuesday, a Lufthansa passenger plane en route to Tel Aviv was rerouted to Cyprus on Tuesday after the airline received a bomb threat, Israeli officials said. The airliner was escorted by Israeli warplanes on its way to Cyprus.

In new fighting Tuesday:

  • A Palestinian gunman was killed and three were wounded in an Israeli air force attack in Jebaliya. Israeli military sources confirmed that armed Palestinians were the target but would not relate to reports that a pilotless drone aircraft fired a missile.
  • A 16-year—old Palestinian girl was shot dead near the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza. The army said the girl placed an explosive charge near an Israeli military outpost, and that when she tried to run away, both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants opened fire in her direction. Residents said she was killed by army fire.
  • In the West Bank, Israeli undercover agents raided the city of Ramallah and killed two members of Force 17, a branch of the Palestinians security forces, in a shootout. The army said the two had been involved in attacks on Israelis. An Israeli border policeman was killed by a shot to the head, and the army was checking whether he was hit by friendly fire.
  • Near the West Bank city of Hebron, a wanted Hamas militant was killed by Israeli troops. The army said the man had opened fire on Israeli soldiers during an arrest operation and was killed by return fire.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Danforth, said another resolution is not the answer, and that the council "acts as the adversary of the Israelis and cheerleader to the Palestinians."

The Palestinian Authority has complained about what it considers the world's forgiving response to the unprecedented Gaza raid.

Hundreds of troops are deployed at the northern end of the strip, controlling the towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, as well as the Jebaliya refugee camp, an area with tens of thousands of residents.

The army says the offensive was launched to push rocket launchers back, out of range of Israeli border towns and Jewish settlements. It was triggered by the killing of two Israeli children by Hamas rocket fire last week.

However, the Palestinians say the military has gone much further, destroying dozens of homes, uprooting trees and tearing up roads. Hospital officials say civilians account for nearly half the 68 killed and about 60 percent of the more than 400 wounded.

The United States, the European Union and a number of European countries have urged restraint by Israel and raised concerns about civilian casualties.

France condemned the Israeli operation on Monday, while Egypt's foreign minister urged Israel to stop its "policy of assassination and destruction," the semiofficial Middle East News Agency reported.

However, the international community has also urged the Palestinians to end rocket attacks, and has acknowledged Israel's right to self defense.

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli urged "all sides to take every measure to avoid civilian casualties" while endorsing "Israel's right to defend itself."

Hassan Abu Libdeh, the Palestinian Cabinet secretary, described the Western condemnations as "weak and not consistent with the large-scale of the aggression."

Raanan Gissin, a senior Israeli official, attributed the tepid international response so far to recognition of Israel's security needs. "The world has come to know Palestinian terror organizations for what they are," he said.

Analysts also cited world "fatigue" with the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the international focus on Iraq.

"All efforts are concentrated on Iraq," said Germano Dottori, a political analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies in Rome.