Sharon edges closer to Palestinian talks

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The Independent Online

Israel paved the way yesterday for a potential summit between its Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and the new Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, even though a fragile and undeclared truce came under strain in the West Bank and Gaza.

Senior Palestinian and Israeli officials held talks aimed at prolonging the current period of relative "quiet" in the wake of a decision by Mr Sharon to lift the freeze on official contacts imposed 12 days ago.

The moves came despite the killing in Gaza of a three-year-old Palestinian girl, Rahma Abu Shamas, by Israeli forces after two Qassam rockets were fired into Israel. The rockets caused no damage or casualties.

Undercover border police later also shot dead a Hamas activist and wounded two members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank city of Qalqilyah, triggering a threat by a spokesman for the Brigades to resume violence unless Israeli raids against its members were halted within 24 hours.

But a meeting went ahead between Dov Weisglass, Mr Sharon's senior adviser, and Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian cabinet minister, to discuss an agenda that included plans to transfer four West Bank cities - Ramallah, Jericho, Qalqilyah and Tul Karm - to Palestinian control.

The talks were at the highest level since Mr Sharon broke off all contacts with the new Palestinian leadership after an attack on the Karni crossing into Gaza killed six Israeli workers. Mr Abbas has ordered an investigation into how the perpetrators passed through Palestinian security at the crossing.

Officials are due to meet again next week to try to agree an agenda for a summit between the two leaders amid signs that Israel wants to focus on security while the Palestinians are keen to discuss the release of prisoners, among other issues. Prisoner releases have been demanded by the armed factions as a condition of agreeing to a full ceasefire.

A Palestinian cabinet official, Hassan Abu Libdeh, who attended the meeting in Jerusalem said a summit could be held within two weeks if the differences can be resolved.

The shootings in the West Bank came after earlier and unconfirmed indications that the Israeli Army was prepared to meet another Palestinian demand by halting its policy of targeted assassinations. Israeli officials yesterday drew a distinction between sections of the occupied territories like Northern Gaza where Palestinians security forces have already been deployed and others where they had not and Israeli Army security was still actively operating.

Military sources claimed yesterday that the Qassam rockets had been fired from a civilian area of central Gaza and said they were investigating the death of the Palestinian girl. The sources said no Palestinian security personnel had yet been deployed in the areas from where the rockets were launched.