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Mideast Peace Talks Resume Amid Violence

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on Wednesday began the first peace talks in nearly seven years, trying to reconcile conflicting claims and clashing dreams in a bid to end six decades of conflict.

The talks went ahead despite a new outbreak of violence in the Gaza Strip. Early Wednesday, Palestinian militants fired 16 homemade rockets toward Israel, causing minor damage lightly wounding one woman, Israeli officials said.

The barrage came hours after Israeli forces ended a broad incursion into the coastal strip that killed six militants and left a wide swath of damage in its wake.

Israel's incursion into Gaza, along with a plan to expand a neighborhood in disputed east Jerusalem, have prompted Palestinian charges that Israel is sabotaging the atmosphere even before the talks begin. Israel rejects the charges.

Late Tuesday, Israel announced that the talks would be moved from Jerusalem's ornate King David Hotel to an undisclosed location.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said the talks got under way around midday. He said both sides wanted to keep the meeting "low key," but there were hopes to "jump start" the peace process. The talks were believed to be taking place at another Jerusalem hotel.

Israel is pursuing peace with the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who rules from the West Bank. At the same time, it continues to battle the Hamas militant group, which has ruled Gaza since defeating Abbas' forces last June.

Israel regularly carries out brief ground incursions and air strikes in Gaza in a bid to stop Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israeli towns.

The Islamic Jihad militant group said it fired nine of the rockets to avenge Israel's incursion. "The resistance is going to escalate the operations targeting the Zionist colonies in the coming hours," said Abu Ahmad, a spokesman for the group.

Tuesday's operation, in which tanks and bulldozers pushed 2.5 miles into southern Gaza, was the broadest push since the Hamas takeover. Early Wednesday, the troops had withdrawn to a buffer zone along the Israeli border.

The Israeli forces left behind heavy damage to al Fukhari, a farming community near the southern town of Khan Younis.

About 75 acres of olive trees and orange groves were uprooted, greenhouses and the outer walls of homes were damaged, and homes were left without power, said Ouda Alomar, mayor of the community. Repair crews were trying to restore electricity and reopen roads that were closed with dirt mounds put up by the troops, he said.

In other developments:

  • Israel is a tiny country, but in 2007, it became the fourth largest arms exporter in the world, surpassing Britain, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger. Israel is a world leader in hi-tech weapons such as radar systems and drones. The US is the world's no.1 arms exporter but it still buys weapons from Israel. Israeli officials say the $4.3 billion in sales this year help Israel maintain a weapons industry that is vital for self-defense.
  • In his first public comments on the matter, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected the new U.S. intelligence assessment that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago. In a speech, Olmert said the fact that Iran is enriching uranium and developing long range missiles is proof that it seeks a nuclear weapon. And he said Iran must be stopped before it's too late.

    Olmert convened his security Cabinet Wednesday, a group of top political and defense officials, to discuss the Gaza situation. Officials decided to continue the police of brief incursions into Gaza, but decided against launching a broad invasion of the area.

    One Cabinet member, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said officials are concerned that a broad invasion would cause heavy casualties to Israeli troops and damage the prospects for peace talks.

    Wednesday's negotiations were to be the first since Israel and the Palestinians formally relaunched peacemaking at an international conference last month in the United States. Olmert and Abbas set an ambitious target of December 2008 - near the end of President Bush's tenure - to conclude a peace deal.

    The last round of talks crumbled in early 2001, shortly after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising. Since then, more than 4,400 Palestinians and 1,100 Israelis have been killed.

    Negotiators are expected to quickly move to issues that have buried past talks - West Bank settlements, borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinian refugees.

    Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, the chief negotiators of the two sides, were expected to lead Wednesday's talks. Abbas and Olmert weren't scheduled to attend, though the men, who speak regularly, are expected to meet soon.

    While the issues at the heart of the conflict haven't changed, conditions may be better now for fruitful talks.

    Opinion polls show that majorities on both sides want a peace settlement. Negotiators say a failure could strengthen rising Islamic extremism in the region, and U.S. and Arab backing for peace moves - absent for years - is providing an important push.

    But obstacles remain. Both leaders face domestic troubles, making it tough for them to offer concessions.

    Israeli hawks are determined to bring down a peacemaking government, and Abbas now controls only the West Bank, having lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas militants. The violent Islamic group is committed to Israel's destruction and allows Gaza militants to fire rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel almost daily.

    In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he hoped the talks would move past procedure. "I think the expectation that they had set out was that this was going to be more of an organizational kind of get-together," he said.

    Mideast envoy Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, said an agreement is possible, but "it needs the most intensive focus from the international community and from the United States."

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