Egypt presses Hamas to agree to truce

CAIRO, Egypt &

Egypt was trying to persuade Hamas today to accept a truce that would halt rocket attacks on Israel in an effort to end Gaza violence and salvage Middle East peace talks.

Deputies of Egypt's intelligence chief Omar Suleiman met with officials from the Islamic militant Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad in the city of el-Arish in the Sinai peninsula, security officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to discuss activities of the intelligence services.

A truce was high on the agenda of the talks, said one security official.

Israel on Tuesday ended a week-long offensive aimed against Gaza militants barraging southern Israel with rockets. Gaza officials say more than 120 Palestinians were killed.

There were fears of a fresh round of violence after Palestinian militants ambushed an Israeli army jeep on the border with Gaza today, killing one soldier and wounding three. The death brought to four the number of Israelis killed in fighting since last week.

Moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has proposed a truce under which Hamas would halt rocket fire into Israel, Palestinian officials said. In return, Israel would stop military activity in the Gaza Strip, ease the blockade of Gaza and the main border crossing between Gaza and Egypt would be opened. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the deliberations were private.

Egyptian officials have not said whether the truce discussions with Hamas were centered on Abbas' proposal. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said earlier this week that Egypt is holding talks with Hamas "to push it to sop the firing of missiles."

"This is the only way to pressure Israel to halt its attacks," he said.

It is unclear whether Israel would accept Palestinian demands for a loosening of the Gaza closure to allow more goods and people into the impoverished territory. Israel fears that weapons and money will be brought into Gaza, which Hamas violently seized control of from Abbas' rival Fatah faction in June.

Abbas now wields little influence over Gaza and its Hamas government.

Asked about the Palestinian proposal, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev would not address the specifics.

"If the rockets were to cease, that would bring about peace and quiet which could be a first step to a return to normality," he said.

Israeli officials say privately that if the rockets stop, there would be an easing of the blockade "of some sort. It won't be all of a sudden peace and love."

Hamas said an end to the blockade in Gaza was a requirement for any truce. Hamas official Ahmed Youssef said a truce is possible "if the siege is lifted and the almost daily assaults are stopped and the Rafah crossing is reopened."

Another Hamas official, Mushir al-Masri, said the militant group must have a say in the running of the border crossings &

a demand Israel would likely oppose. Egypt has reportedly sought to have Abbas' Palestinian Authority manage the crossings as it did before Hamas' takeover of Gaza.

Al-Masri said Abbas' "monopolizing of the crossing management is an extinct ... experiment, and we don't want to fall into those same slippery road again."

Egypt appears to have launched its mediation bid under heavy pressure from its ally, the United States.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held talks with Egyptian leaders on Tuesday. During the visit, she announced she had waived the withholding of $100 million in U.S. aid to Egypt called for last year by Congress &

and some in Cairo saw the waiver as a gesture to win Egyptian help with Hamas.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch met with Suleiman and Aboul Gheit today to discuss the Egyptian mediation efforts.

Welch told journalists he was "reassured by the commitments" he heard "about Egypt's intentions in that regard."

"It is a difficult situation for every one but we must not lose sight of the target and we must not allow ourselves to be diverted by reaction of extremists view," he said.

Arab diplomats in Cairo said Egypt's ability to push Hamas is limited, saying Syria and Iran have greater influence with the group.

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