Israelis, Palestinians Agree To Meet

Palestinians walk on top of the ruins of a Hamas base damaged by an Israeli missile strike near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, May 29, 2007.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet to try to halt two weeks of violence that has seen southern Israel battered by rockets and Gaza pummeled by air strikes.

Abbas hopes to line up Palestinian factions behind a truce before next week's meeting, but the violence showed no sign of letting up. At leaset six Palestinian militants were killed in fighting Tuesday and early Wednesday, while three others died while mishandling explosives, Palestinian officials said.

Two of those deaths came early Wednesday as an Israeli air attack on a group firing rockets at Israel from northern Gaza, Palestinian security officials said. Hamas radio said the two dead belonged to its military wing.

The Israeli army said it was looking into the report. Israeli aircraft have conducted dozens of sorties against Hamas rocket squads and installations in recent weeks, killing some 50 Palestinians, most of them militants.

Abbas and Olmert promised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in March to meet every two weeks to try to get peace talks moving again. But they have since met only once, in Jerusalem on April 15.

In the interim, a late-November truce between Israel and Gaza militants has collapsed under Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli retaliation, making another meeting all the more urgent.

No venue has been set, but the West Bank town of Jericho has been proposed. Olmert's office said he intended to demand that Palestinians halt their rocket fire on southern Israeli towns bordering Gaza. Palestinian officials said the meeting would take place June 7; Olmert's office did not confirm the date.

The Islamic militant group Hamas, which has partnered with Abbas' Fatah movement in the Palestinians' ruling coalition government, has been the main force behind the more than 250 rockets fired the past two weeks. Two Israeli civilians have been killed and thousands have fled the frequently targeted town of Sderot.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli troops arrested Palestinian legislator Jamal Tirawi of Fatah, who has close ties to the movement's violent offshoot and was wanted for involvement in attacks on Israel. In the past year, Israel has arrested dozens of Hamas lawmakers, but Tirawi was the first to be detained from Fatah.

Rice said she didn't see a direct U.S. role in the truce discussions.

"I don't frankly see my role as negotiating a cease-fire between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority," she said. "There ought to be a cessation of violence because there ought to be a cessation of violence. The Palestinians themselves are pursuing that course and some of the Arab states have been helping them."

Abbas is trying to work out a truce agreement with Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups. He said he would take a deal to Israel once he got militants' approval.

"All problems and difficulties can find a solution through negotiations," he said.

Under his plan, Gaza militants would halt rocket fire for a month to allow for negotiations on a more comprehensive cease-fire that would include the West Bank. Should calm take hold, he hopes to cement it by deploying security forces loyal to his Fatah movement in eastern and northern Gaza to guard against rocket-launching.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said he expected little to come out of Abbas' meeting with Olmert. "These meetings have shown they have no benefit, especially in light of the current aggression that is targeting Palestinians in general and Hamas specifically," he said.

On Monday, Abbas appealed to militants to take the first step in forging a new cease-fire with Israel, saying the alternative would be the collapse of the Palestinian coalition government.

"The truce project means all acts by all parties stop, the Palestinians first and the Israelis, so we can move after to the West Bank," Abbas told AP Television News.

Hamas says there can be no truce if Israel keeps up its attacks and refuses to extend any Gaza cease-fire to the West Bank, site of frequent Israeli arrest sweeps against militants. Israel has been cool to the idea of applying the truce to West Bank.

In remarks to Israel's parliament Tuesday, Olmert reasserted the position that no Palestinian acting against Israeli civilians can be immune from reprisal: "We will continue to strike them."

Israeli officials have not confirmed that Hamas' political leaders were possible targets. Israeli missiles have landed near the homes of two Hamas leaders, including Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, but the military has denied they were targets.

Also Tuesday, John Dugard, the U.N. Human Rights Council's investigator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, urged the so-called Quartet of Mideast peace mediators — the United States, U.N., Russia and the European Union — to fully recognize the Palestinian government, including Hamas members, as an "indispensable requirement" to peace.

Israel has consistently rejected Dugard's reports and statements as one-sided. In March he compared the Jewish state's treatment of Palestinians to apartheid, comments that Israeli officials called "inflammatory."

The Quartet has said it will only recognize those in the Palestinian government who accept key principles: Israel's right to exist, previous agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization, and renunciation of violence.