- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

JERUSALEM — Israel and the Palestinian Authority resumed diplomatic contacts yesterday after a two-week hiatus, and Israel agreed to suspend targeted killings of Palestinian militants — two more steps toward a cease-fire and a resumption of peace talks.

The relative calm was marred by a brief burst of violence in the Gaza Strip, including the killing of a Palestinian preschooler, apparently by Israeli army fire, and the launching of a Palestinian rocket. Also, in the West Bank, Israeli troops fatally shot a Palestinian militant and seriously wounded two others in an arrest raid on the town of Qalqiliya, the army said.

Officials from both sides held a flurry of meetings yesterday to prepare for a summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and to finalize a plan for Palestinian police deployment in the central and southern Gaza Strip today.

Mr. Abbas told his security chiefs to get ready for assuming control of five West Bank cities within 10 days, participants in the meeting said.

The cities are Ramallah, Tulkarm, Qalqiliya, Jericho and Bethlehem, the commanders said.

A senior U.S. envoy, William Burns, arrived for talks with top Israeli and Palestinian officials on the emerging cease-fire. After meeting Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Mr. Burns said Washington is committed to taking advantage of what it sees as “a very promising moment.”

“We’ve been very encouraged by steps that Mr. Abbas has taken on security, by the Israeli reaction to those steps,” Mr. Burns said.

There were also indications that Condoleezza Rice, the Bush administration’s newly confirmed secretary of state, soon would be joining the peace process.

“She is planning to go to the region,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said after a meeting with Miss Rice yesterday.

“I think it will be in a short time,” the Israeli official said in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “It will be a positive step.”

Israeli and Palestinian commanders met twice yesterday at a key junction in southern Gaza to finalize the deployment of Palestinian forces in central and southern Gaza. About 100 Jewish settlers briefly disrupted the first meeting, throwing stones and cutting tires of participants’ vehicles, Israeli police said. Five settlers were detained for questioning.

Palestinian police commanders denied reports that the deployment has already begun. They said commanders and their security guards toured the area only briefly and then returned to old positions.

Mr. Sharon decided to resume diplomatic contacts with the Palestinian Authority, two weeks after he cut ties over a Palestinian attack that killed six Israelis at a Gaza cargo crossing.

Shortly after the decision, Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat met with Mr. Sharon’s aide, Dov Weisglass, to discuss a cease-fire and prepare for a summit.

Mr. Erekat and Mr. Weisglass failed to agree on a summit agenda, participants said.

Palestinian official Hassan Abu Libdeh, who participated in the talks, said there could be a summit in two weeks if differences over the agenda can be settled.

Israeli security officials said Tuesday the military has agreed to halt targeted attacks on militants — usually missiles fired from helicopters — in which dozens of fugitives and bystanders have been killed since the outbreak of fighting in 2000.

The most prominent Palestinians killed in the targeted attacks were Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

The security officials said Israel would not act on its current target list of militants, but they warned that if Palestinians resume hostile activity, Israel will target those responsible.

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