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Palestinian PM Eager for Sharon Meeting

December 12, 2003

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said Friday he is eager to meet his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon and is confident he can reach a peace deal, even as a Hamas leader told thousands of supporters the militant group would launch a new wave of suicide bombings.

The threat of renewed terror attacks on Israelis comes less than a week after Qureia and Egyptian mediators failed to persuade Hamas and other militant groups to halt attacks in an effort to broker a cease-fire.

Israeli leaders, meanwhile, have been warning that time is running out for a peace agreement and they might be compelled to impose a solution.

On Friday, busloads of Israelis _ fearful of Israeli moves that could include dismantling some Israeli settlements _ flocked to the Netzarim settlement in the Gaza Strip in a show of solidarity with the 60 families who live there under massive military guard.

At least 1,000 visitors from all parts of Israel arrived to spend the Jewish Sabbath at the settlement, a target of repeated Palestinian attacks. Gunmen fired occasional shots at the armored buses, and helmeted troops took up combat stations around the settlement, but there were no injuries.

Qureia’s remarks, published in Israeli newspapers, came amid increasing talk by Sharon about unilateral Israeli moves that would likely include a withdrawal from some parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the annexation of others.

The two leaders have not met since Qureia was sworn in as prime minister in October, and efforts to arrange a summit between them in recent weeks have bogged down in disputes over Israeli military restrictions on the movement of Palestinians and a separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank.

``We are dying to talk to you,″ Qureia said in an interview with the Maariv daily. ``I believe that if we returned to the negotiating table, I could reach an agreement with Sharon.″

Violence, however, continued Friday. Palestinian gunmen ambushed a van of Israeli worshippers returning from a disputed holy site in the West Bank, wounding seven passengers, one of whom was reported by Israel Radio to be in critical condition.

In the Gaza Strip, Hamas co-founder Abdel Aziz Rantisi pledged at a rally that a fresh wave of attacks on Israelis was coming.

``Bodies of (Hamas) commandos will continue to shake and to blow up in the depth of the Zionist entity,″ Rantisi told a cheering crowd of thousands. ``Jihad (holy war) is coming.″

It was his first public appearance in months, since Israeli helicopter gunships and warplanes launched a series of strikes against him and other Hamas leaders.

The last major Hamas attack in Israel came on Sept. 9, with twin suicide bombings outside an army base near Tel Aviv and at a cafe in Jerusalem that together killed 16 people.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a boost to Israelis and Palestinian peace-seekers by meeting one of the authors of an unofficial initiative, Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh. Nusseibeh’s Israeli partner, former Shin Bet security chief Ami Ayalon, was delayed in New York and missed the meeting.

Powell also met Friday with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who came fresh from meetings in Europe with the Egyptian president and the Palestinian foreign minister, where renewed peace talks were high on the agenda.

Shalom said after the meeting that he and Powell agreed that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians should begin immediately without preconditions.

Talk by Israeli leaders of unilateral moves is increasingly spooking the Palestinians, who fear they will end up with much less land than in a negotiated agreement.

Vice Premier Ehud Olmert has proposed that Israel remove a ``considerable″ number of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and draw a border that would include the rest inside Israel.

His proposal falls far short of the Palestinian demand for a state in all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Olmert intimated in an interview with The Associated Press Thursday that Sharon tacitly backed his ideas. Dismantling settlements, however, would be a dramatic departure for the Israeli premier, who has been the settler movement’s leading patron for a quarter of a century.

Early Friday, Palestinians ambushed a vanload of Jews who had just visited Joseph’s Tomb, a site inside Nablus, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. Israeli soldiers abandoned the site three years ago and Palestinians ransacked and burned it. The military has banned Israelis from entering the site.

Seven of the passengers were shot and wounded, one critically, and initially sought refuge in an abandoned house nearby, witnesses said. ``I heard about 15 rounds,″ said a Palestinian resident of the area, Morad Kassab, 27. ``I looked from the window, and I saw strangers crying and screaming and talking on the phone.″ The army, which said it did not know the Jews were in the area before the attack, eventually rescued them.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, an armed group with loose ties to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, claimed responsibility. Al Aqsa gunmen drove the van into the nearby Balata refugee camp and burned it.

Some Jews believe that the biblical Joseph is buried at the site. Palestinians say it is the tomb of a Muslim religious leader.

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