Sharon and Abbas agree to meet as violence eases
JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas agreed Sunday to hold their first summit since Israel’s pullout from Gaza as part of their efforts to restart the stalled Middle East peace process, officials from both sides said.The announcement came as a new flare-up in fighting – blamed for the cancellation of a previously scheduled summit – eased in recent days.Israeli officials said Sunday they were suspending the wide-ranging offensive against Palestinian militants following a lull in rocket attacks against Israeli towns, but said they would restart the operation if the rocket fire resumed. The officials said the operation succeeded in weakening militants’ ability to attack Israel from Gaza.As the offensive wound down, Hamas militants waged gunbattles with Palestinian police across Gaza City on Sunday night that killed three people – two bystanders and a police officer – and wounded at least 50 others, including 10 police officers, according to the Palestinian Interior Ministry.Egyptian mediators worked to negotiate an end to the gunfights, Palestinian officials said, and Gaza residents called in to a local radio station pleading with Hamas to stop the fighting. The gunfights came just three days after Hamas agreed to respect a ban on carrying weapons in public as part of an effort to bring order to Gaza’s chaotic streets.Abbas called Sharon on Sunday to offer holiday wishes ahead of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which begins Monday night.During the conversation the leaders decided to meet soon, though no date for the summit was announced, and also agreed to “tighten cooperation and to work together to advance the peace process,” Sharon’s office said.Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said preparations for the summit would begin in coming days.Sharon and Abbas were originally scheduled to meet Sunday, but that meeting was canceled after Israel launched its offensive two weeks ago in response to a barrage of rockets fired by Gaza militants.In Damascus, Syria, Hamas’ political leader said calls by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for his group to disarm were “rude” interference in internal Palestinian affairs.Khaled Mashaal, in an interview with The Associated Press, also accused the United States of conspiring with Israel against the interests and rights of the Palestinian people.Rice said last week that Hamas cannot participate in Palestinian politics if it remains armed, but stopped short of calling for a ban on Hamas’ participation in parliamentary elections to be held in January.”We do, I think need to give the Palestinians some space to try and reconcile their national politics, but they’re going to eventually have to disarm these groups,” she said.Sharon opposes Hamas’ participation in Palestinian legislative elections on grounds it violates the internationally backed “road map” peace plan, which calls on the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups.During the Israeli offensive, airstrikes killed four militants in pinpoint attacks and destroyed buildings purportedly used to produce and store weapons. Israel also arrested more than 400 suspected militants in the West Bank.Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet the offensive had dealt a tough blow to the Hamas militant group, and was meant to send a stern message that Israel will not tolerate attacks from Gaza, which it withdrew from last month after 38 years of occupation.Hamas blamed the Palestinian Authority for the Gaza violence, saying it started after police attempted to arrest the son of Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the former Hamas leader who was slain in an Israeli airstrike last year.Abbas is under international pressure to disarm Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups. Abbas refuses to confront the militants, fearing civil war, and instead has tried to co-opt them by inviting them to participate in Palestinian legislative elections.Separately, Israel warned its citizens against traveling to Egypt’s Sinai peninsula during the upcoming Jewish holidays because Arab militants were planning to kidnap Israeli tourists there.During the holiday season last year, more than 30 people died in bombings at a luxury hotel in the Sinai resort area of Taba, just over the Israeli border, and in a nearby beach camp. At least 64 people were killed July 23 in terrorist attacks in Sinai’s main resort of Sharm el-Sheik.Also Sunday, the Israel army said it would open an investigation into the death of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy shot by Israeli forces following a riot on Friday.Palestinians said the boy was shot and killed by soldiers when he threw stones in the Askar refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus. The troops who fired said they believed the boy was holding a gun, according to an initial army inquiry.
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