JERUSALEM – Egyptian mediators were headed to Gaza to restart talks among Palestinian factions about halting attacks on Israelis, Egypt said Monday. A truce could be the first step toward restarting long-stalled peace negotiations.
Egypt hosted talks among 12 Palestinian factions earlier this month in Cairo, with the participation of Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search), but Islamic groups refused to promise to end attacks.
Qureia, in the West Bank town of Ramallah, hinted Monday at new progress. "We have been discussing this at every meeting and it is a Palestinian priority, and God willing we will have a new important development in coming days," he said.
In the weeklong Cairo talks that ended Dec. 7, Qureia — backed by Egyptian mediators — sought a militant commitment to stop attacks against Israelis. The Hamas (search) and Islamic Jihad (search) groups charged Israel must meet a series of demands including ending military operations.
Israel has said it would not be a party to a cease-fire, instead demanding the Palestinian Authority dismantle and disarm the militant groups as stipulated in the U.S-backed "road map" peace plan. Still, Israeli officials have suggested that if the Palestinians stop their attacks, Israel would scale back its military operations and ease punishing travel restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza.
A unilateral Palestinian truce over the summer lasted about six weeks, significantly reducing the level of violence before it collapsed.
The Egyptian News Agency said the delegation would arrive in Gaza on Tuesday for separate talks with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Yasser Arafat's Fatah (search) movement. Leading the team will be Gen. Moustafa El-Bohairi and Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim, it said.
Progress in the talks could lead to a summit between Qureia and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. They have been unable to agree to the terms of such a meeting ever since Qureia took office in October.
Qureia has said concrete results must be assured, but Sharon has rejected any preconditions.
Sharon has also spoken of "unilateral" Israeli measures if contacts remain frozen, but he hasn't spelled out what he means.
In Washington, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom discussed developments with U.S. officials. He told Israel Radio that unilateral steps "should be coordinated with the Americans."
A leading member of Sharon's government on Monday demanded the dismantling of some Jewish settlements and the annexation of West Bank territory containing others.
Education Minister Limor Livnat, an outspoken hawk from Sharon's Likud Party, refused to say which settlements would be dismantled under her plan, which she said she had discussed with Sharon.
However she said two large settlements in the Jerusalem area — Pisgat Zeev and Maaleh Adumim — should be annexed and that a barrier Israel is building around the West Bank should be extended to take in the second largest West Bank settlement — Ariel — and a group of settlements near Bethlehem.
"We have to take some kind of interim measures until there is an alternative (Palestinian) leadership," she told Israel TV.
Also Monday, Israeli and Palestinian officials met with representatives of donor countries and the World Bank to discuss easing the humanitarian crisis facing the Palestinians after three years of conflict.
The gathering, at an American diplomatic office in Jerusalem, was a follow-up to last week's annual meeting in Rome of international donors to the Palestinian Authority. At that meeting, some of the donors, who provide about $1 billion to the Palestinians each year, warned that the funds could be withheld if the conflict does not wind down.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that during the meeting, U.S. envoy David Satterfield encouraged both sides to "consider a set of constructive and useful steps that will help us move forward with an agenda aimed at improving Palestinian lives."
In continuing violence, Israeli troops shot and killed two unarmed Palestinians early Monday when they tried to infiltrate Israel from the Gaza Strip.
Four others managed to enter Israel, the army said. One of them, caught in the early morning, was also unarmed. Three others remained at large, and soldiers set up impromptu checkpoints and roadblocks as forces searched for them.
Meanwhile, a Gaza-born Canadian citizen appeared at a preliminary court hearing Monday to face conspiracy charges for allegedly planning attacks on Israeli officials traveling in the United States and bombings against Jewish targets in North America.
Jamal Akkal, 23, denied the charges during the hearing at an Israeli military base. He had signed a confession, but his lawyers say he did so under duress.
None of the attacks was carried out. Akkal was arrested in Gaza on Nov. 1.