- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

JERUSALEM — Hamas said yesterday it was ready to talk to the Palestinian prime minister about halting attacks on Israelis, even though the Islamist militant group participated in a deadly attack on a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip two days earlier.

Israel retaliated yesterday for the attack on the Netzarim settlement, blowing up three uninhabited high-rise buildings that the army said were used as lookouts by assailants who killed three Israeli soldiers at the settlement southwest of Gaza City.

One attacker was from Hamas and the other was from the smaller Islamic Jihad group.

More clashes were reported in the Gaza Strip yesterday, leaving at least one suspected Palestinian militant dead.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his Cabinet he would try to persuade European leaders not to support an unofficial peace proposal reached by Palestinian officials and Israeli opposition figures with Swiss backing.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who took office Oct. 5, has said repeatedly that he wants to reach a cease-fire in hopes of ending more than three years of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israel has said it will not begin negotiations until all Palestinian security forces are placed under one command and begin cracking down on militants.

Mr. Qureia and his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, have held talks with militant groups about halting attacks voluntarily, but so far to no avail. The militants say they want guarantees that Israel will stop its military strikes, a promise Israel has refused to make.

A unilateral truce declared by militants on June 29 was negotiated through back channels, without the involvement of Mr. Abbas, and broke down several weeks later in a burst of violence.

Despite the difficulties, Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, said his group had responded favorably to an invitation to meet with Mr. Qureia. “Hamas is preparing for this meeting,” he said, adding that no date has been set.

Mr. Qureia’s office could not confirm the invitation had been issued, but reiterated the Palestinian Authority’s interest in gaining Hamas assent for a cease-fire with Israel.

“Ahmed Qureia has declared from the beginning that he is working to achieve a mutual cease-fire with Israel and working as well to confirm that there is one authority in the Palestinian territories,” said Hassan Abu Libdeh, the bureau chief of the Palestinian Cabinet.

Officials close to the prime minister said Egypt is playing a key role in encouraging the cease-fire efforts. Egyptian officials were not immediately available for comment.

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