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New Attacks Threaten Mideast Peace

A Palestinian anti-tank missile struck an Israeli armored vehicle at an Israel-Gaza border crossing on Wednesday, seriously wounding one soldier, Israeli military officials and rescue workers said.

The attack at the Erez border crossing came as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was in Gaza working to persuade militants to halt their attacks on Israeli targets. A Palestinian suicide bomber killed one Israeli and wounded eight others late Tuesday, shortly after Abbas' arrival in Gaza for talks with the militants.

Israel has threatened a tough military response if Abbas cannot bring an end to the violence.

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, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel 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.

Sharon planned to meet with his security Cabinet later Wednesday to consider a response. Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the army was weighing three options: pinpoint operations, a larger but limited incursion, or a major offensive. For now, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz opposes the last option, senior officials said.

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.

Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, continued his efforts in Gaza Wednesday. He met with members of his Fatah movement and was later scheduled to talk to Islamic Jihad.

"We are going to listen to Abu Mazen regarding all the items, including the cease-fire," said Mohammed al-Hindi, a leader of Islamic Jihad. But he added: "Nothing can be given for free."

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.

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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