Officials: Palestinian FM Accepts Proposal for Palestinian-Israeli Peace Conference

The Palestinian foreign minister accepted an Arab proposal on Sunday for peace conference to resolve its conflict with Israel, and Arab countries decided to end a crippling financial blockade on the Palestinians.

Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, of the ruling Hamas group, endorsed a statement by Arab foreign ministers calling for a peace conference during a meeting in Cairo, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The endorsement was the first time Hamas, which has refused to recognized Israel and renounce violence against the Jewish state, said it would consider making amends with Israel.

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"The ministers call to convene a peace conference attended by Arab parties, Israel and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in order to reach a just and comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict on all tracks according to international resolutions and the principal of 'land for peace'," the statement said. Arabs want Hamas to endorse a 2002 Arab initiative that trades peace with Israel with land seized by the Jewish state in the Middle East 1967 war.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said he was not aware of such a conference proposal, but Hamas could not be a party to talks with Israel unless it met the international community's stipulations that it recognize Israel, renounce the use of violence and agree to abide by existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

"A multilateral conference doesn't make Hamas legitimate," Regev said. "What makes Hamas legitimate is accepting the international benchmarks."

Sunday was the first time Zahar had attended an Arab foreign ministers' meeting since Hamas became the ruling Palestinian party earlier this year. The Arab League had previously refused to let him join his counterparts unless Hamas accepted the peace initiative.

Arab ministers also decided on Sunday to end a financial blockade on the Palestinians in response to a U.S. veto to a U.N. Security Council draft resolution condemning Israel's deadly military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

"We decided not to cooperate with it [the blockade]. There will no longer be an international siege," said Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa.

On Saturday, the U.S. vetoed the Security Council draft resolution that condemned the Israeli military offensive that has killed more 50 people recently and demanded that Israeli troops pull out of the territory. The veto drew sharp criticism from Arab countries, and top Arab diplomats from 11 countries gathered in Cairo to hammer out a response.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid and tax revenues was cut off to the Palestinians after the Hamas militant group took power in March in an effort to pressure the ruling group to moderate its violent anti-Israel ideology.

But the economic sanctions have debilitated the Palestinians and have lead to clashes between Hamas and the more moderate Fatah party.

Arab League Secretary-General said the decision to break the Western-lead financial blockade was a message to the U.S.

"Our message is loud clear to those who take unfriendly positions against Arabs," Moussa told reporters in Cairo.

In an immediate show of support, Kuwait's foreign minister said his country would send $30 million to the Palestinians, and Bahrain's foreign minister said the Arab countries would begin contacting international financial institutions to get the money transferred to the Palestinians.

Mohammed Awad, secretary general of the Palestinian Cabinet, said there is at least an outstanding $52 million dollars that would be ready for transfer now that Sunday's decision was made. The Arab League should now be able to transfer the money to the government accounts, instead of to the president's coffers, he said.

"Most banks follow their governments. They must remove the blockade," Awad told The Associated Press in Gaza City. But he said some private banks will not necessarily comply.

The money would go to paying salaries, Awad said.

In a statement, the ministers also decided to ask the U.N. General Assembly to hold a special session to discuss the situation in the Palestinian territories.

Israeli artillery killed 19 civilians in a crowded Gaza neighborhood of Beit Hanoun on Wednesday, the latest bloodshed in Israel's weeklong offensive meant to halt militant rocket attacks.

The incident marked the highest number of Palestinian civilians killed in a single strike since fighting erupted six years ago, and undermined Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' attempts to form a more moderate government and renew a peace process with Israel.

During Saturday's deliberations in New York on the draft resolution, U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the United States was "disturbed" that the Arab-backed resolution was "biased against Israel and politically motivated."

It was the second U.S. veto of a council draft resolution concerning Israeli military operations in Gaza this year. The U.S. blocked action on a document this summer after Israel launched its offensive in response to the capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas-linked Palestinian militants.

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