- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli commandos yesterday carried out the first arrest raid in the Gaza Strip since Israel’s withdrawal from the coastal area last year, seizing two Hamas militants in a swift overnight operation.

The raid, completed under the cover of darkness, was staged as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was in Gaza trying to work out final details on a power-sharing agreement with the Hamas-led government.

Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas met for about two hours late yesterday but failed to reach a deal. Participants said the talks were positive, and more meetings were scheduled for today.

“The dialogue is moving in the right direction,” said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a top aide to Mr. Abbas. He said both sides need to “convince the world that we have a government they can deal with.”

The two sides have been locked in a power struggle since Hamas defeated Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party in January legislative elections. Mr. Abbas, a moderate, was elected separately last year.

Mr. Abbas has been pressing the Islamic militants of Hamas to accept a proposal drafted by senior prisoners held by Israel that calls for the implicit recognition of the Jewish state.

If Hamas does not accept the document, Mr. Abbas has said he will move ahead with a July 26 referendum on the proposal. Opinion polls indicate Palestinian voters back Mr. Abbas.

Mr. Abbas thinks a united political front would end weeks of Palestinian infighting, help lift international sanctions against Hamas and allow him to restart peace talks with Israel.

Israel and Western donors, which provide most of the funds for the Palestinian budget, have boycotted the Hamas government until the group renounces violence and recognizes Israel.

Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, has so far refused to endorse the deal with Mr. Abbas. But with the economic situation in the Palestinian areas worsening, pressure has mounted on the militants to strike a deal.

Mr. Hamad, the government spokesman, said Hamas has agreed to compromise on “very important issues.” Contentious points in the prisoners’ document include tacitly accepting Israel by endorsing a Palestinian state alongside it, ending Palestinian attacks inside Israel and forming a national unity government.

Officials said the remaining area of disagreement focused on a proposal calling for formation of a coalition government. Hamas currently controls the legislature and Cabinet.

The Palestinian talks have been complicated by worsening violence with Israel. Palestinian militants in Gaza have been firing homemade rockets into southern Israel almost daily. In the raid yesterday, a small force of Israeli commandos swept into southern Gaza, seized two brothers affiliated with Hamas and quickly withdrew, the army said.

It was the third time ground forces had entered Gaza since Israel completed its unilateral withdrawal in September but the first time troops arrested militants.

Capt. Tal Levram, a spokesman for Israel’s southern command, described the raid as an isolated incident and said it did not signal a new tactic in Israel’s war with the militants.

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