| Protesters rally in Ramallah in support of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. (AFP)
Gaza, June 16 (Reuters): Egyptian envoys today failed to achieve a breakthrough in talks with Palestinian militants aimed at arranging a ceasefire with Israel and salvaging a US-backed peace “road map” battered by violence.
Representatives of Hamas and other militant groups meeting in Gaza said they had demanded international guarantees for a halt to Israeli military strikes on their leaders before they would agree to stop their own attacks on Israelis.
But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told members of his Rightist Likud party in Jerusalem: “As long as the Palestinians don’t fight terror... Israel will continue to hit at the terrorists and terror organisations”.
Israel's parliament voted today to back Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s statement that a peace deal would be impossible unless the Palestinians cracked down on militant groups behind attacks on Israelis.
Militants said the Egyptian delegation, which wrapped up two days of meetings today, had offered to resume talks in Cairo and that the proposal was under consideration.
A surge of violence since a June 4 peace summit attended by President George W. Bush, Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has jeopardised the road map affirmed at the gathering in Aqaba, Jordan.
The bloodshed has included the killing of four Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip, a Hamas suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus in which 17 died and Israeli air attacks that have killed more than 20 Palestinian militants and civilians.
The Egyptian-led talks coincided with the first mission to the region by Bush’s new envoy, veteran diplomat John Wolf, to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort to put the peace plan back on track.
In parallel talks, Israeli and Palestinian security officials have been discussing possible Israeli troop withdrawals from the northern Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Bethlehem in exchange for a Palestinian pledge to rein in militants in those areas.
Hamas has said it would cease attacking Israelis in a 32-month-old uprising for independence only when Israel ended its occupation of land Palestinians claim for a state.
After three hours of meetings with the Egyptian delegation today, there was little sign that Hamas and other militant groups spearheading armed resistance were ready to back down.
Senior Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab appeared to reject the idea of a unilateral ceasefire after three hours of talks with the Egyptian envoys.
“Ceasefire means surrender to occupation,” he said.
Ahmed Helles, secretary-general of the mainstream Fatah movement in the Gaza Strip, said: “In this meeting, there has been an exchange of views. The Egyptian delegation will go to their leadership in Egypt with our positions.”
Israel has put new pressure on Hamas by pledging to strike at its leaders, backing up its threats by wounding one of Hamas’ best-known spokesmen, Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, in a helicopter missile attack in Gaza last Tuesday and an attack in Gaza on Thursday that killed Yasser Taha, a senior member of the group’s military wing.
Hamas officials said they remained opposed to the peace plan, which calls for an end to violence and the start of reciprocal confidence-building steps between Israel and the Palestinian Authority leading to a Palestinian state by 2005.