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Mideast Peace Moves Forward Anyway

Israel and the Palestinians have decided to resume security talks, holding off an Israeli military offensive in retaliation for recent attacks.

The developments came a day after a Hamas suicide bombing disrupted fledgling efforts by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to coax militants into halting their attacks.

Abbas, who is under tremendous pressure from Israel to take action, was meeting with leaders of armed groups in Gaza on Wednesday to negotiate a truce, even as a Palestinian anti-tank missile struck an Israeli armored vehicle at an Israel-Gaza border crossing on Wednesday, seriously wounding one soldier.

Israel's Security Cabinet met to consider military options, officials said, but in response to a Palestinian request for talks, the ministers decided instead to try to stop the violence in cooperation with Abbas' forces.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had cut off contacts with Abbas' administration after an attack Thursday on a Gaza crossing point left six Israelis dead. Sharon's decision drew harsh criticism from world leaders.

The Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security talks were to begin later Wednesday. Palestinian officials said the talks would take place at the Erez checkpoint between Gaza and Israel, the scene of Wednesday's missile attack.

Meanwhile, the top Palestinian security commander on Wednesday promised swift action to stop violence against Israel.

Lt. Gen. Abdel Razek Majaide, the top Palestinian commander in Gaza and the West Bank, said Wednesday that Palestinian forces would soon be deployed near the border with Israel.

"Preparations are under way to deploy Palestinian national security soldiers along the borders to stop any sort of violations," Majaide said in a radio interview. Palestinian militants near the Gaza-Israel border frequently launch rockets into southern Israel.

Majaide did not say when the deployment would begin. However, Sharon has warned his patience is running thin. Israel is demanding that Abbas put a stop to a recent wave of Palestinian violence, and has threatened a large-scale raid into Gaza if he fails.

A senior Israeli official told the Jerusalem Post the recent surge in violence is the work of Hezbollah, Iran and Syria, intended to scuttle any progress on peace with the Palestinians.

The official said this is part of a "deliberate strategy" to force Israel to act in a way that will make reconciliation with the new Palestinian government impossible.

Abbas huddled with his security advisers and commanders in an emergency meeting after the bombing late Tuesday, and later held talks with leaders of the two Islamic groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Abbas has rejected Israeli calls to crack down on militants. Instead, he hopes to persuade them to halt their attacks. In exchange, the Palestinians want Israel to stop attacking militants — a demand that Israel is unlikely to accept.

Militants have given mixed signals about their readiness for a truce. The groups have said they will not give up their arms, but have also indicated they will halt the violence if Israel stops attacking them.

Palestinian officials said they were optimistic they would soon win a cease-fire commitment.

"I have realistic optimism that this can be done, and this can be done in a fairly short time," said Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath. "I think both the Palestinian and Israeli people long for security and peace and a return to the peace process."

He declined to say how Abbas, an outspoken critic of violence, responded to Tuesday's attack. "Discussions (with Hamas) were comprehensive, serious, candid and positive," he said.

In Senate confirmation hearings Tuesday, Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice said, "This is a moment of opportunity."

She promised to spend a lot of time trying to steer Israel and the Palestinians into an agreement but said the terms to end their conflict had to be determined by the two sides, not the United States.

Rice was confirmed by the Senate Wednesday.

The suicide bombing occurred late Tuesday, when a suicide bomber in a car approached an Israeli checkpoint on Gaza's main north-south road.

The Shin Bet security agency said agents stopped the bomber at the junction and took him into an inspection room. where he detonated an explosive device hidden in his underwear, killing an agent.

The military said eight Israelis were wounded — five soldiers and three Shin Bet agents.

Gaza has experienced a surge in violence in recent weeks. Palestinians have repeatedly fired rockets and mortars at Jewish settlements in Gaza and areas in southern Israel. Last week, attackers killed six Israeli civilians at a Gaza border crossing.

Also Wednesday, Palestinians fired a mortar shell at a Jewish settlement in the southern Gaza Strip. The army said there were no injuries, although settlers said a house was damaged.

The army also said it shot two Palestinians in Gaza near the Israeli border. It said the men crawled toward a border fence, and one threw a grenade. Their conditions weren't immediately known.

Early Wednesday, Israeli troops wrapped up their largest operation in the West Bank weeks, arresting 13 Hamas members in Nablus, witnesses and the army said.

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