Peace talks may resume |

Peace talks may resume

ATHENS, Greece (AP) – In their first high-level talks since Ariel Sharon took office as Israel’s prime minister, Palestinians and Israelis searched Wednesday for a way to halt the latest surge in Mideast violence. But back home, the two sides traded mortar fire in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and two senior Palestinian leaders, Nabil Shaath and Saeb Erekat, said the sides would renew security talks, which have repeatedly broken down during the more than six months of fighting.

”We are now trying to get out of an extremely difficult period,” Peres said after a meeting with Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou.

In Israel, security officials met late Wednesday for about two hours, said Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian security chief in Gaza. The exact location was undisclosed. A representative of the CIA took part, he said. Israeli security chiefs and military commanders were present.

Dahlan said the meeting was ”difficult,” and no agreements were achieved. He said the Palestinians demanded that Israel remove its restrictions on the Palestinians, withdraw tanks and stop the practice of targeted killing of Palestinian activists.

It was the first high-level security meeting in months. Israel believes that security coordination is essential to stop attacks by Palestinian extremists.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. helped arrange the security session. ”We’re quite happy to be involved in this way to help facilitate their meeting,” he said.

Wednesday’s political contacts – the most active since Sharon came to power a month ago – focused on the immediate problem of halting the bloodshed, and not on the collapsed peace talks. Sharon has insisted he will not open any peace negotiations until the violence ends, and in the current hostile atmosphere, a strong majority of Israelis appear to support his hard-line stance.

There appeared little hope of reviving the peace talks in the short term. Both sides have warned the fighting, which has intensified in the past week, could spiral out of control.

Shaath said the aim was to ”move toward a just peace with not one Palestinian child, not one Israeli child hurt in the process.”

But the Palestinians cautioned that no breakthroughs appeared imminent.

”I don’t want to raise anyone’s expectations. We had a very long and candid exchange of thoughts on all issues, the political aspect, the security aspect. We have different points of views in the ways we see things on the ground,” Erekat said.

In renewed violence Wednesday, Palestinians fired four mortar shells on the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in central Gaza, but no one was hurt, Israel’s army said. Israeli forces answered the fire with several mortar rounds that targeted a nearby Palestinian security base.

In another attempt to reduce tensions, three Israeli lawmakers met Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah and agreed a way to defuse the crisis had to be found.

”It is very important to have a solution under the political umbrella to achieve a reduction in the violence,” said Naomi Chazan, a member of Israel’s dovish Meretz party, which is not affiliated to Sharon’s ruling coalition.

With peace talks broken down, President Bush’s administration has said it will not mediate as actively as did former President Clinton, and will rely on the Israelis and Palestinians to take the lead in direct talks. But the bloodshed is likely to pressure the Americans to take a more active role.

”The American role is not enough and not acceptable. We need American intervention now,” Mahmoud Abbas, a senior Palestinian leader said in Ramallah.

In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush ”reiterates his call for the violence to end and for the two parties to begin talking, continue talking, so that they can forge a peace agreement.”

In Gaza, meanwhile, dozens of settlers from the Gush Katif settlement bloc protested Wednesday, a day after mortars landed inside one of the settlements, spraying shrapnel that seriously injured a 1-year-old Israeli boy, Ariel Yered.

Following surgery, he was in improved condition, the Israeli media reported. His mother, Leah, suffered a broken arm and shrapnel wounds to the stomach.

Following the Palestinian mortar attack Tuesday, Israel retaliated by firing dozens of rockets at five areas in Gaza. Shaath said the attacks left many injured and accused Israel of ”escalation, hitting everywhere in Palestine, without any limitations.”

Also, Israeli security forces on Wednesday tore down at least seven Palestinian homes, including five in the Hebron area, citing the lack of proper building permits, witnesses said.

Since the fighting began in September, 458 people have been killed, including 375 Palestinians, 64 Israeli Jews and 19 others.

AP-WS-04-04-01 1959EDT

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