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Talks resume between Israeli, Palestinian officials

JERUSALEM—Top aides to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met Wednesday with senior advisers to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as Israel resumed diplomatic contacts with the Palestinian Authority.

Negotiators said they were laying the foundation for a meeting soon between Sharon and Abbas.

Israel, which had broken off contact two weeks ago to protest Palestinian violence, reopened talks after Abbas ordered Palestinian troops to the Gaza Strip border to prevent rocket fire into Israel.

Israel's army said it would suspend targeted killings of Palestinian militants provided the lull in recent attacks persists.

The restoration of high-level contacts is recognition by Israel that Palestinian Authority President Abbas appears to have succeeded in reining in rocket attacks on Israeli towns and has opened talks with militant Palestinian groups about the possibility of a formal cease-fire.

"Contacts were resumed in wake of the positive developments in the Palestinian Authority and the effort to prevent terrorism," a statement by Sharon's office said.

For his part, Abbas called the talks "promising in all aspects."

There were other signs of rapprochement. Abbas reportedly told his security chiefs to prepare for the Israeli army to withdraw its troops from five West Bank cities—Ramallah, Tulkarem, Kalkilya, Bethlehem and Jericho—within the next 10 days, while Israeli and Palestinian commanders met in southern Gaza to finalize details on the deployment of Palestinian soldiers along the Israel-Gaza border.

Representing Abbas at Wednesday's meeting were Palestinian Negotiations Minister Saeb Erekat, Palestinian Cabinet secretary Hassan Abu Libdeh and Mohammed Dahlan, a powerful Palestinian security figure.

Representing the Israelis were Dov Weisglass, Shalom Turjeman and Assaf Shariv, all senior aides to Sharon.

"The fact that the meeting was conducted was an achievement," said Sharon spokesman Ranaan Gissin. "We demanded the Palestinians take steps to start to end the violence, and they did take those steps."

The death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, coupled with the willingness of Hamas to engage in talks about a possible cease-fire, has thrown open "a real window of opportunity," Gissin said.

Gissin said the Israelis would soon reopen the cargo crossing between Israel and Gaza at Karni, which was shut down after Palestinian commandos killed six Israelis there this month.

"If they continue to take real steps to stop terror and incitement, that will pave the way back to the road map," Gissin said, referring to the U.S.-sponsored plan for peace, which calls on Israel to halt settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories and for the Palestinians to halt all political violence.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Williams Burns arrived Wednesday night for talks with both sides. He's expected to discuss the embryonic cease-fire and how to get both parties to live up to their road map obligations.

Palestinian Cabinet member Abu Libdeh said a summit between Sharon and Abbas was possible within two weeks if differences over the agenda can be ironed out when the representatives meet again next week.

He said the issues under discussion include "revival of engagement by both sides on the road map, a regime of confidence-building measures and coordination mechanisms that will allow the two sides to avoid deterioration" when they hit hurdles.

"This is a process which is very fragile, which is constructed on an incremental basis," Libdeh said.

There's been little violence in recent days, though there were a number of Israeli-Palestinian clashes Wednesday.

A Palestinian preschooler was killed in her home when Israeli soldiers in Deir el-Balah opened fire after militants fired a rocket into Israel, the preschoolers' relatives said. The army confirmed that its soldiers had fired, but offered no information on casualties.

In the West Bank town of Kalkilya, Israeli troops shot and killed a member of Hamas and wounded two members of al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, the armed wing of Abbas' Fatah faction, the army said.

The stepped-up operation prompted a spokesman for al Aqsa to say his

group will respond militarily if Israel doesn't cease its raids within the next two days.

Jewish settlers briefly disrupted the meeting of Israeli and Palestinian commanders in southern Gaza by throwing stones and deflating the tires of participants' cars, Israeli police said.

Settler Ayala Ezran told Israel Army Radio that the demonstrators were angry that Palestinian officials met with the Israeli commanders so close to the settlement of Neve Dekalim.

Israel is slated to dismantle all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank this summer.

An Israeli army spokesman said it was premature to discuss reports that Israel was ready to withdraw from the five West Bank cities. But Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said in radio interviews last weekend that Israel was ready to hand over security control in West Bank cities as soon as Palestinian security forces were ready to

assume responsibility there.

Mofaz, who was traveling outside Israel Wednesday, and Dahlan, the Palestinian

security adviser, are expected to meet this week.

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(Matza reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Knight Ridder news assistant Cliff Churgin contributed to this report.)

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

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