Palestinian President Abbas, Exiled Head of Hamas Meet to Discuss Attacks on Israel, International Sanctions

The moderate Palestinian president and the exiled political leader of the militant group Hamas were to hold a rare meeting Friday in the Egyptian capital — their first since their sides formed a coalition government, officials from both camps said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the moderate Fatah movement and Hamas' supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, were to discuss the troubled cease-fire with Israel, international sanctions against the Palestinians, the PLO restructuring in which Hamas wants a part, as well as other issues facing the recently formed government.

According to Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Abbas, also on the agenda would be the fate of Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, seized last June by Hamas-affiliated militants from an Israeli military camp on the border with the Gaza Strip.

The kidnapping provoked an Israeli military offensive that killed more than 200 Palestinians. Hamas has said Shalit would be released only in return for Palestinians jailed in Israeli prisons.

Egypt has tried to negotiate Shalit's release for months and has blamed Hamas for failing to conclude the deal. Israeli Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who visited Cairo in October, said his government had accepted Egypt's conditions for a prisoner swap and blamed Mashaal for the failure to conclude the deal.

Hamas' representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, said the meeting would also consider a "restructuring" of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The umbrella group — which is separate from the newly formed Fatah-Hamas government — is the sole party authorized to conduct negotiations with Israel.

The meeting Friday was also to discuss Abbas' seven-nation tour of European Union countries this month — his latest attempt to persuade Europe to end the aid cutoff and fully resume dealings with Palestinian government.

Aid has continued to reach Palestinians through non-governmental organizations and other means of bypassing the government. The new Palestinian government says it needs 1.33 billion in international support "to get back on its feet." But the EU, which has been a major donor, says Hamas must recognize Israel first and commit to past agreements before aid is fully restored.

Abbas-Mashaal meeting comes amid an escalation in Palestinian-Israeli tensions following a barrage of rockets fired by Hamas earlier in the week threatening a five-month cease-fire.

Egyptian officials were concerned the firing of the rockets could sabotage their mediation efforts. "Launching rockets is negative and leads nowhere," said Col. Burhan Hamad, head of an Egyptian security delegation.

Israeli press reports on Friday said Egypt has threatened to cut off relations with Hamas unless it halts its attacks on Israel. Egyptian Intelligence Chief Gen. Omar Suleiman reportedly sent a "tough" message to Hamas leaders, warning them against the rocket attacks.

The Jerusalem Post, meanwhile, reported Thursday that Hamas will resume its efforts to try to kidnap Israeli soldiers to trade them for Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

Khalil Abu Lailah, a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, told the Post that "Hamas' decision to kidnap Israeli soldiers is not just a threat."

"For us, this is a strategic issue aimed at securing the release of all our prisoners from Israeli jails. Hamas has made it very clear that it will continue to kidnap Israeli soldiers until our prisoners are freed. By keeping our people in Israeli jails, Israel will lose more soldiers," Lailah told the Post.

As far as Hamas is concerned, the "cease-fire" with Israel does not exist any more, he said.

Lailah also criticized Abbas for saying that this week's rocket attacks on Israel were an exceptional case that would not be repeated.

"Hamas will continue to fire rockets as long as Israel continues its atrocities," the Hamas official said. "Abbas should have said that the rocket attacks were a natural response by Hamas to the Israeli crimes. Abbas should have called on [Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert to stop his aggression on our people.

The Jerusalem Post contributed to this story.