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International community tries to jump-start Mideast peace talks

JERUSALEM—International efforts to rejuvenate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks took on new urgency Friday as internal Palestinian clashes reached a ferocity that transformed Gaza City into a besieged war zone.

Nearly two dozen people have been killed and more than 150 people injured since the latest cease-fire broke down Thursday, once again dashing hopes that the rival Palestinian factions could contain the clashes.

Plumes of black smoke rose above Gaza City as militants armed with machine guns and mortars waged battles throughout the day. Streets were largely deserted as residents holed up in their homes and waited for the latest clashes to subside.

Masked militants burned tires at makeshift roadblocks, and scores of injured Palestinians were rushed to the city's medical centers. The centers warned that they were running out of blood to help the victims.

"The level of confrontation has reached an apex," said Naji Shurab, a political science professor at Gaza City's Al Azhar University. He huddled Friday with his family in one room of their darkened house as fighters raced through his neighborhood. "There are only two options ahead: agreement or further confrontation."

Egyptian negotiators stepped in again late Friday to broker a cease-fire between the Islamist Hamas forces and the secular Fatah party, which have been waging an costly battle for political and military control.

Negotiators for both sides worked to finalize plans for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to travel to the Muslim holy city of Mecca early next week to meet Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in peace talks brokered by Saudi Arabia.

After pushing for Palestinian elections a year ago, in which Hamas prevailed, the Bush administration has led international efforts to isolate the group. It asked Congress this week for $83 million in non-lethal assistance to Abbas' security forces, a move critics say could help fuel a Palestinian civil war.

In a tacit acknowledgement that the strategy has failed to budge Hamas, members of the diplomatic "Quartet" met in Washington on Friday and called for increased assistance to the Palestinian people.

"It's now apparent we're not going to see the Hamas government bring itself into conformity with Quartet principles in the near future," said a senior U.S. official, referring to demands that Hamas renounce terrorism, recognize Israel and abide by past Israeli-Palestinian accords. The official spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules imposed by the State Department.

The Quartet, comprised of the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States, issued a statement expressing "deep concern at the violence among Palestinians" and urging "respect for law and order."

While the group backed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's stepped-up efforts to establish a Palestinian state, it split sharply over Washington's refusal to engage another regional player: Syria.

At a press conference, Rice reiterated the U.S. position. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow favors "including all those who can contribute to progress ... and definitely, in this case, Syria could take a constructive role."

But there was little optimism Friday in the Gaza Strip that the latest diplomacy would halt the cycle of violence, which has claimed more than 65 lives in the past month.

"This is a disaster for all the Palestinian people," said Gaza City aid worker Mohammed Abu Najela.

The latest clashes began overnight when Fatah militants stormed the Islamic University in Gaza City, a respected college led by Hamas allies that was a target of Israeli air raids last summer.

Fatah officials initially claimed that they'd captured seven Iranians who were aiding Hamas, according to the Associated Press. Hamas denied the charge, and Fatah officials offered no evidence to support the contention.

Hamas responded by attacking Fatah-dominated security posts and Al Quds University. A Fatah intelligence officer was killed in the fighting, along with at least two children under the age of 8, according to hospital officials.

Fears of increased Iranian influence in the Gaza Strip have prompted Israel and the United States to step up their efforts to shore up Abbas. The pragmatic Fatah leader lost control of the Palestinian Authority a year ago when Hamas won majority control of the parliament.

Led by the United States and Israel, much of the international community cut off diplomatic and financial ties to the Palestinian Authority when Hamas took power. The nations vowed not to resume ties until the Islamist hard-liners renounced their pledge to destroy Israel.

Hamas has refused to bend to the international demands, making impossible the creation of a unity government that's capable of ending the crippling isolation.

While Hamas-Fatah talks have stagnated, the two sides have been working quietly to bolster their military forces. That, in turn, has led to intensifying street battles for domination.

"It's the worst so far," said Issam Younis, director of the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza City. "Who knows what the consequences will be if the clashes continue? The neighboring countries could be damaged by the scale and development of this chaos."

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(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed to this story.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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