Hope for Middle East talks as US steps in

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The Independent Online

The US will send its senior Middle East official to the region this week to assess whether increased hopes of a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants could finally revive the peace process.

The US will send its senior Middle East official to the region this week to assess whether increased hopes of a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants could finally revive the peace process.

William Burns, Assistant Secretary of State, was expected to hold talks with Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders as Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, continued negotiations to halt the violence.

Though largely symbolic, deployments of Palestinian security services in northern Gaza have increased, as Mr Abbas tries to demonstrate his determination to halt attacks by militants. Yesterday, one of his aides said: "Talks are positive and continuing in a positive atmosphere."

For the third successive day the factions refrained from launching attacks.

Amid hopes for a possible breakthrough in the talks, Mr Abbas is likely to use Mr Burns's visit to press Washington to help extract a promise from Israel that it will honour a ceasefire. At the same time Mr Abbas is trying to get the armed Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to do the same.

Although close to an agreement with the Palestinian President, the factions have been trying to secure guarantees that Israel will not continue its operations against militants, which they blamed for the collapse of the ceasefire in the summer of 2003.

Mr Abbas has also tried to reassurethem that any future negotiations on a two-state solution will be based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the projected capital of the new Palestinian state.

Giora Eiland, head of the Israeli National Security Council, said: "I would say in simple language that we would respond to quiet. If there is no reason to carry out a certain operation, we wouldn't do so." However, he expected Mr Abbas to disarm the militants.

On Friday Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas spokesman, said that attacks would not be launched while the talks continued.

As Palestinian security forces were deployed yesterday, it was not clear how far they would be prepared to use force against militants.

On the edge of the northern Gaza district of Beit Lahiya yesterday, the commander of a detachment of military intelligence members said: "We are here to keep things in order. There is an understanding with the factions. It would not make a difference if there wasn't, but there is an understanding. Everything now depends on the other side [Israel]."

Ziad Abu Amr, the Abbas ally and Gaza City Palestinian Legislative Council member who has been mediating with the armed factions, said last week that the deployment of troops and Mr Abbas's opposition to the "militarised" intifada, would put Hamas on a "collision course" with the Palestinian leadership if it rejects a ceasefire. "I don't think they are keen to engineer an internal, violent conflict, when they are trying to occupy the high moral ground."

At the same time, Hamas has indicated its desire for a stake in Palestinian politics by standing in this summer's Legislative Council elections for the first time.

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