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Abbas in Gaza to reinforce shaky truce

The Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Gaza on Wednesday to reinforce a shaky truce with Israel and settle disputes with militant groups, but violence punctuated his visit as fighters fired rockets at Jewish settlements and Israel responded with an airstrike.

Abbas was expected to remain in Gaza for several days, holding talks with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders as well as his own Fatah party about a range of issues.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, also known as Abu Mazen, leaves his office in the West Bank town of Ramallah on his way to the Gaza Strip, Wednesday June 8, 2005. [AP]
For the second day in a row, Hamas and Islamic Jihad cells aimed rockets and mortar shells at Jewish settlements. No casualties were reported. Three workers were killed by a mortar shell Tuesday.

Israel hit back Wednesday afternoon. In a strike clearly designed to limit political fallout, an Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a mortar launcher and an empty vehicle, while the militants escaped.

The renewed violence, which comes despite a truce declared four months ago, was Abbas' first subject. On arrival in Gaza, he denounced the Israeli airstrike.

"It's an unjustified operation, because it will destroy the truce," he told reporters.

The cease-fire, declared Feb. 8 at a summit in Egypt by Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, does not appear in danger of collapse, because both sides are intent on preserving it. However, flare-ups like those of the past two days can spiral out of control.

The violence is linked by many to internal Palestinian conflicts. Hamas is fielding candidates in a parliamentary election for the first time, and its leaders are angry with Abbas for announcing an indefinite postponement of the election, originally set for July 17. Hamas was set to cash in on voter disaffection with Fatah rule after 10 years of mismanagement and corruption.

Igniting violence with Israel is a Hamas method of maintaining its popularity, while the main interest of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships is to maintain the relative calm through Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, set to begin in mid-August.

On Wednesday night, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met his Palestinian counterpart, Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, to discuss the pullout. The talks were held in a good atmosphere, Yousef's spokesman said. Recent talks have ended in discord.

Sharon also chaired a ministerial meeting Wednesday where preparations for the withdrawal were discussed.

The meeting was uncharacteristically opened to journalists, in an apparent effort to dispel impressions that the government isn't ready to provide alternative housing, jobs and schools for the 9,000 settlers who will be relocated.

"The evacuation will take place on schedule," Sharon said, criticizing "incitement," threats and pressure on the settlers by opponents of the pullout.

Officials said only about half of the settlers slated for evacuation are currently coordinating their upcoming move with the government. Pullout opponents have urged settlers not to cooperate with the pullout plan.

On Wednesday, visiting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he's convinced Israel will go ahead with its Gaza pullout on schedule in August, and called it an opportunity for Mideast peace.

"I'm struck by the determination of the Israeli government to proceed with this, and proceed with it by the date set in mid-August," he said in Jerusalem, after meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
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