The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Prod to Palestine peace bid

Jerusalem, June 14 (Reuters): Israel and the Palestinians planned to resume high-level security talks today despite a week of attacks and counter-attacks in which more than 50 people have died, imperilling a US-led peace plan.

The meeting, which coincides with a new US diplomatic mission to salvage the peace “road map”, was expected to focus on Israel’s renewed offer to pull back from parts of the Gaza Strip in return for a Palestinian crackdown on militants.

Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan was to meet senior Israeli military officials tonight in the first such talks since US President George W. Bush launched the peace plan at a summit last week, sources on both sides said.

But there was little cause for optimism amid vows of revenge by Palestinian militants and Israel’s pledge to wage war against them “to the bitter end”.

Hamas, the main group behind a campaign of suicide bombings against Israelis, said it would flatly reject any deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “We will not accept a ceasefire,” Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar said.

The US called for restraint by Israel and an end to Palestinian attacks after the spiral of tit-for-tat violence heightened international concern that the 32-month-old conflict was spinning out of control.

Veteran US diplomat John Wolf was due in Israel late this evening for separate talks in coming days with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

His original brief was to oversee implementation of reciprocal confidence-building steps mandated by the road map, which calls for creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

But following a Hamas suicide bombing in Jerusalem and Israeli air raids against the Islamic militant group in Gaza, he was expected to find himself in the role of trouble-shooter.

Violence flared again today. Palestinian security sources said an Israeli army patrol shot dead a 19-year-old man and wounded three people when it fired on a crowd of stonethrowers in a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus.

The army had no immediate comment.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had proposed in earlier meetings with his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas a partial withdrawal from parts of northern Gaza as a proving ground for Palestinian security forces.

But Abbas had rejected the offer, saying he first needed to work out a deal with militant groups that have rejected the road map to halt attacks on Israelis.

After three days, in which Israel killed six Hamas men using helicopter-fired guided missiles — also causing at least 16 civilian deaths — the Palestinians said they were ready to assume security control if Israel stopped its hits on militants.

“We are ready to take over the territories from which the Israelis withdraw,” information minister Nabil Amr said.

But Israel, seething from Wednesday’s Hamas bombing aboard a Jerusalem bus which killed 17, showed no sign of backing down. “As a government responsible for the security of its citizens, we must wage a war to the bitter end (against Hamas) because no one else, at least at this stage, will do it,” deputy defence minister Zeev Boim told Israeli Army Radio.

US secretary of state Colin Powell was due to meet other members of the so-called “Quartet” of mediators — the UN, European Union and Russia — in Jordan on June 22.

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