- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

JERUSALEM — Israel offered to withdraw troops from parts of the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinians expressed readiness to take up security control as the two sides resumed talks yesterday to patch up a U.S.-backed peace plan after a week of violence. But hours later, Israeli forces entering a Gaza town killed a Palestinian.

Meanwhile, the first contingent of U.S. monitors who were to supervise implementation of the “road map” peace plan — a team of 10 to 15 officials headed by John Wolf, an assistant secretary of state — were headed to the region yesterday.

Renewed violence, including a Jerusalem bus bombing by the militant Hamas group and a string of Israeli helicopter raids in Gaza, has claimed more than 60 lives since the June 4 launch of the road map, which envisions an end to 32 months of violence and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Early today, Israeli forces entered the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza, setting off an exchange of gunfire, Palestinians said. One Palestinian was killed and seven wounded, doctors said. Palestinians said the dead man was a local commander of the violent Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and soldiers targeted him.

Despite the worsening situation, behind-the-scenes meetings were continuing.

A high-level delegation of Egyptian security officials planned to arrive in Gaza today to meet with Hamas officials to discuss a possible end to attacks.

However, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which broke off cease-fire talks with the Palestinian leadership a week ago, said yesterday they had no plans to halt attacks on Israel.

“The word cease-fire is not in our dictionary,” said Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a hard-line Hamas leader. “Resistance will continue until we uproot them from our homeland.”

Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan met last night with Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defense official, at the home of the U.S. ambassador, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported on its Web site. The purpose was to discuss an Israeli proposal to withdraw from parts of the Gaza Strip to positions held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000.

The meeting ended after midnight, Israel Radio reported. No details of the talks were released.

It was the first security meeting since the road map was initiated by President Bush and the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers in a Jordan summit on June 4.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said that under the latest U.S. proposal, Israel would withdraw from large areas of Gaza and two West Bank cities. The two sides would also make a new cease-fire declaration, Mr. Abed Rabbo said.

Israel has repeatedly offered to withdraw from areas it reoccupied in the past 32 months, provided the Palestinians assumed security control.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has said his security forces, badly damaged in Israeli attacks, were not yet prepared for the task, and he wanted to first negotiate agreements with militants on ending attacks against Israelis.

But overnight, the Palestinian leadership met to discuss the proposed pullback and decided it was “ready to take security responsibility in every area the Israelis show willingness to withdraw from,” Information Minister Nabil Amr told the Associated Press.

Under the road map, Israel is to withdraw gradually from territory it reoccupied during the recent fighting, while the Palestinians are required to dismantle the militant groups.

Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Arlel Sharon, said Israel has “submitted a plan … relinquishing security control over parts of Gaza and handing it over to full control of the Palestinian Authority and Mr. Dahlan’s security forces.”

At the same time, Israel has said it was widening its campaign against Hamas and would target its top leaders.

In recent days, Israel carried out seven missile strikes against Hamas targets, including a failed attempt on Mr. Rantisi’s life. Hamas blew up a Jerusalem bus to avenge that attack, and carried out a number of other attacks.

Violence continued yesterday as Israeli troops shot and killed a 19-year-old Palestinian man, Khaled Saker, when they fired at a group of people throwing stones at them in the Askar refugee camp near Nablus in the West Bank, according to Palestinian hospital officials. Israeli Army officials did not immediately comment.

In Gaza, Israeli forces demolished seven houses and five orange groves in the Rafah area. In recent days, militants had launched mortars from that area at Israeli targets.

The Israeli army said it thwarted a planned suicide attack yesterday and arrested a wanted Palestinian in the West Bank city of Tulkarem. Troops discovered two suicide belts and exploded them, the army said. Hospital officials there said three Palestinian teenagers were lightly wounded in clashes with Israeli troops.

Mideast mediators are planning to meet in hopes of rescuing the peace plan from the quagmire of violence.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other senior representatives of the so-called Quartet — the United States, United Nations, Russia and the European Union, which together drew up the road map — are to hold talks in Jordan next week.

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