March 6, 2008 / 1:29 PM / 9 years ago

Egypt holds inconclusive talks with Hamas on truce

<p>Islamic Jihad militants stand outside the venue of a news conference in Gaza March 6, 2008.Mohammed Salem</p>

GAZA (Reuters) - Egypt held inconclusive talks on Thursday with leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, part of a U.S.-backed push for a truce between the groups and Israel to halt a surge in violence.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders said after the meeting they would study the Egyptian proposal but were non-committal.

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said the onus was on Israel to first make a commitment to stop "all forms of aggression" and end its blockade of the impoverished coastal enclave.

An end to rocket attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip and suspension of Israeli raids into the Hamas-run territory would make it easier for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to continue to negotiate peace with the Jewish state.

The talks were held in El Arish, an Egyptian town just south of the Gaza Strip, three days after Israel ended an offensive in northern Gaza that killed more than 120 Palestinians, about half of them identified as civilians.

Speaking in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she had spoken with Egyptian leaders and expressed "trust" their efforts could further U.S.-backed peace talks.

"It is extremely important that there be an effort to bring calm there," Rice said, calling Cairo a "good ally".

Abbas suspended negotiations with Israel in protest at the bloodshed. Rice, who visited Israel and the occupied West Bank earlier this week, said Abbas had agreed to resume the talks.

Khaled al-Batsh, a member of the Islamic Jihad delegation in the talks with Egypt, said his group would hold internal deliberations and respond to the truce proposal within days.

"As long as the Zionist enemy continues its aggression, we will continue acts of self-defense," Batsh said. After the meeting in El Arish, Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for several rocket attacks on southern Israel.

Abu Zuhri said: "There must be a real commitment by the Israeli occupation to end all forms of aggression on our people and open the (border) crossings before a response can be given."

"The ball is in Israel's court," he said.

Hamas has stopped short of saying any truce must include the West Bank, as demanded by Islamic Jihad.

<p>Islamic Jihad militants take part in a news conference claiming responsibility for the death of an Israeli soldier, in Gaza March 6, 2008.Mohammed Salem</p>

Israel tightened restrictions at Gaza's crossings after Islamist Hamas seized the territory from Abbas's Fatah faction in fighting in June. A ceasefire agreement could entail an easing of those measures.

The U.N.'s top human rights body passed a resolution on Thursday condemning Israeli attacks on Gaza and accusing Israel of "inflicting collective punishment against the civilian population, which is contrary to international humanitarian law". Israel called the resolution "political posturing".

Aid groups said in a report that Israel's blockade had created the worst humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip since Israel captured the territory in the 1967 Middle East war. It pulled out troops and settlers in 2005.

A senior U.S. official in the region said the United States had told Israel it favored opening some of Gaza's border crossings to commercial as well as humanitarian supplies.

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MEDIATOR

In a possible sign of movement towards a cessation of hostilities, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Wednesday that Israel would have no need to carry out attacks in Gaza if militants there stopped firing rockets across the border.

Israeli and European officials regard Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, as key to brokering a truce with Hamas and other militant groups.

Israel, the United States and the EU refuse to negotiate with Hamas, which has rejected their demands to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals.

"I hope that all Palestinian factions in Gaza will cooperate with Egypt in order to reach to a full truce," said Saeb Erekat, a member of the Palestinian team negotiating with Israel.

Violence continued to flare along the Israel-Gaza frontier.

A bomb planted by Palestinian militants killed an Israeli soldier at the Kissufim border crossing. The Islamic Jihad militant group initially claimed responsibility, but the Popular Resistance Committees later said it had carried out the attack and issued a video of a jeep being destroyed by an explosion.

Militants in the Gaza Strip fired several rockets at Israel. Three houses were hit in the southern town of Sderot, moderately injuring one woman, police said.

An Israeli air raid on what the military described as a rocket-launching site in the Gaza Strip killed an Islamic Jihad militant. Militant groups say the rocket salvoes are a response to Israeli raids in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; additional reporting by Brenda Gazzar and Adam Entous in Jerusalem and Paul Taylor in Brussels; editing by Andrew Roche

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