JERUSALEM — Palestinian negotiators threatened Saturday to suspend already-sluggish peace talks with Israel after more than 50 Gaza Strip residents, including at least six children, were killed in Israeli attacks.
It was the deadliest day in years as the Israeli military launched a campaign of air strikes, artillery fire and ground attacks aimed at Palestinian militants who launch rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. By nightfall, more than 50 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers had been killed.
The escalating clashes in Gaza are likely to set a sour tone when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in Jerusalem later this week as part of the Bush administration's attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by year's end.
On Saturday, Palestinian negotiators warned that the Israeli military actions were poisoning the well of goodwill and could kill the fragile peace talks.
"I don't think Abu Ala and I can meet with the Israelis under these kind of circumstances," said veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who is leading peace talks with Ahmed Qureia, also known as Abu Ala.
Qureia said he urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to cut off talks with the Israelis, even though the two sides are not scheduled to meet again until after Rice's visit.
"What is happening in Gaza is a massacre of civilians, women and children, a collective killing, a genocide," Qureia told the Associated Press.
Israeli leaders said suspending peace talks would be counter-productive and only embolden the militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, in its ongoing attempts to torpedo the Bush administration's Middle East diplomacy.
"The decision of the Palestinian Authority to suspend talks plays into the hands of Hamas," said Arye Mekel, a spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry.
Mekel also said that Israel couldn't base its military decisions on the schedule of the Bush administration's chief diplomat.
"That's not something that we can consider," said Mekel. "The Palestinians have decided since Wednesday to send these rockets to Ashkelon and now we have a quarter of a million citizens in range."
Israel launched the weekend operation after a crude Palestinian rocket killed an Israeli college student on Wednesday and more advanced rockets hit Askhelon, the largest city close to the Gaza border.
Palestinian militants struck Ashkelon again on Saturday with at least seven rockets that injured six Israelis. Another 30 rockets were fired at smaller communities near the Gaza borders that caused no serious injuries.
By hitting the largest city about 10 miles from the Gaza border, Palestinian militants effectively opened up a broader front.
For the most part, Palestinian militants fire crude Qassam rockets that have no guidance systems and modest explosives. Over the last year, Palestinian militants have fired more than 2,000 Qassam rockets into southern Israel that have killed three Israelis.
But the rockets that hit Ashkelon were more sophisticated, lending credence to Israel's long complaint that Hamas was smuggling more advanced rockets into Gaza.
In response to persistent hawkish pressure to take military steps to quash the rocket launchers, the Israeli military launched Saturday's Gaza assault.
Medical officials in Gaza said at least six children and 20 civilians were among the casualties. In the last two months, more than 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in Gaza, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. In the last four days alone, eighteen children have been killed, Gaza medical officials said.
Karen Abu Zayd, the head of the United Nations refugee agency in Gaza, said she was "horrified at the violence engulfing Gaza, where the death toll of innocent civilians, including children, rises each hour."
Even before Saturday, there were growing signs that the Bush administration's push for peace was in trouble. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has cast doubts on the prospect for a peace deal this year. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's critical coalition party partner, Shas, is threatening to bring down the government if and when the two sides begin to talk about the possibility of redrawing the boundaries of Jerusalem.
And now the Israeli military operation is casting a new cloud.
(Special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamdan contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.)
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