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Israel's Sharon breaks off contact with Abbas

JERUSALEM—Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Friday cut off contact with newly elected Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas after Palestinians attacked a Gaza border terminal Thursday night, killing six Israelis.

The suspension of contacts ended hopes that the two leaders might resume dialogue in the coming days, in what would have been the first high-level Israeli-Palestinian meeting in 18 months. Renewed dialogue became possible following the death in November of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom Sharon blamed for Palestinian attacks on Israel.

Thursday's attack by militants and Israel's swift response illustrated the limited room for maneuver by either leader. Abbas has no effective control over militants, while Sharon can't afford to appear weak to his people.

"We're suspending contact until such time that the Palestinian Authority will investigate this attack, bring to justice those who carried it out and take real steps to stop terrorist acts," said Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin.

The Palestinian leadership said the suspension was unfair. Abbas, they said, shouldn't be held responsible because he won't be sworn in as president of the Palestinian Authority until Saturday, following his landslide election last week. Abbas earlier condemned the attack.

Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib warned that Sharon's announcement would play into the hands of the militants Israel wants to see stopped.

"It says something that he's being held responsible even before he took charge," Khatib said. "These kind of problems can be better handled by improving and sanctioning contacts and dialogue rather than cutting them."

Sharon's government had welcomed the election of Abbas. Israeli officials see Abbas as a pragmatist with whom they believe they can do business. The Bush administration has also encouraged dialogue.

Even so, Israeli sentiment toward the Palestinian leader had cooled in recent weeks after Abbas used harsh language against Israel during the campaign. Israel also objected to Abbas' plans to coax rather than crack down on militants in an effort to get them to lay down arms. Abbas has repeatedly said that violence against Israel has been counterproductive for Palestinians.

Shortly before 11 p.m. local time on Thursday, Palestinian militants used a bomb weighing at least 265 pounds to blast through a door at the border terminal separating Gaza from Israel. When Israeli security and rescue personnel responded, Palestinian gunmen opened fire with mortars and guns.

Israeli soldiers fired back, killing three Palestinians.

The attack prompted Israeli officials to immediately seal off the crossing, through which food and supplies are shuttled in and out of Gaza.

Hours later, Israeli Defense Secretary Shaul Mofaz and the military's chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, announced they were closing the two other crossings into Gaza from Egypt and Israel, effectively sealing off the coastal strip from the outside world.

Thousands of Palestinians across the Gaza Strip celebrated the attack in a clear indication that Abbas had, at best, limited control over the situation. Abbas and his allies are struggling to gain authority over the disparate Palestinian security agencies that he'll need to rein in Palestinian militants.

Sharon, for his part, is politically weak and under pressure from Israeli critics over his plan to withdraw Jewish settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip this summer. Some Israelis oppose withdrawal under any conditions, believing that Gaza should be part of Israel. Others would agree to withdrawal, but they argue that Israel shouldn't give up territory while under Palestinian fire, as this would amount to a show of Israeli weakness. To persuade these critics, Sharon needs Abbas to take action to end attacks on Israel.

"If, for example, terrorism continues while they are taking steps, we can understand," said Sharon spokesman Gissin. "We're willing to make painful compromises, but we're not willing to pay with the bodies of our people while they do nothing."

It's still unclear whether Abbas has the political clout to do anything significant.

"If Yasser Arafat was seen as the leader who could end the armed uprising, but chose not to do so, then Thursday's attack portrays Abbas as a leader who may wish to end the armed struggle, but cannot do so," journalist Arnon Regular wrote in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz on Friday.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Ariel Sharon

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Abbas

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