Rice ends Mideast trip without move on peace talks

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrapped up a Middle East trip on Wednesday after failing to secure a resumption of peace talks as Palestinians insisted on a truce and Israel vowed more strikes on Gaza.

Rice met senior Palestinian negotiators and Israeli ministers at the end of a visit aimed at mending peace efforts hobbled by Israeli attacks that have killed more than 125 people, including children, in Gaza in less than a week.

But Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas insisted there must be agreement to halt the violence before peace talks—revived to great fanfare just three months ago under US stewardship—can start again.

“The negotiations must resume, but only after a truce takes effect,” said Abbas, who froze negotiations at the weekend in protest at the deadly Israeli assault on Hamas-ruled Gaza.

The US-backed Abbas said Rice was involved in efforts to achieve a truce, along with Egypt, which has often played the role of mediator in the Middle East.

“I spoke today again with Secretary of State Rice and she will send an envoy, David Welch, to Cairo where intense efforts are being deployed with a view to reaching a truce,” said Abbas, who lost control of Gaza in June after Hamas fighters routed his forces.

But Israel gave no indication it intended to stop its military strikes aimed at halting near daily rocket attacks on its soil by militants from Gaza, a tiny isolated enclave that is home to 1,5-million largely impoverished Palestinians.

“The Israeli army operations against the Gaza Strip will continue as long as the rocket fire continues,” a senior official quoted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as saying.

Hamas has also rejected Abbas’s appeals for a ceasefire, saying the blame lay with Israel.

“We consider the statements of the Palestinian president about the truce an unbalanced call because the problem lies in the occupation, not in the Palestinian people,” Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said on Tuesday.

Violence in and around Gaza escalated sharply on February 27 after an Israeli raid killed five Hamas militants and the Islamists responded with a barrage of rocket fire on Israel.

But even as Rice dined with Olmert on Tuesday—just hours after she told Israel to take more care not to kill civilians in its military operations—fresh raids on Gaza killed a baby girl and a senior militant.

Several dozen children and other civilians have been among those killed in Israeli strikes over the past week. Two Israeli soldiers and one civilian were also killed during the same time.

Rice called on both sides to renew negotiations as she met Abbas on Tuesday in Ramallah following a brief stop-over in Cairo.

Hamas urged the moderate president not to resume peace talks, insisting the true aim of Rice’s efforts was “to incite a war against Hamas and the resistance”.

But Rice said she still believed it was possible to achieve George Bush’s goal of resolving the decades-old conflict and inking a historic peace deal by the end of the US president’s term in less than a year.

Bush, too, said he was still “optimistic” about the prospects for the peace talks, relaunched to great fanfare at a US conference in November after a seven-year freeze but mostly static since.

The US president urged the two sides to “step up” efforts to end the violence and reach a deal.

“This is a process that, you know, always has two steps forward and one step back. We’ve just got to make sure that it’s only one step back,” Bush declared in Washington on Tuesday.

During her visit, Rice reiterated that the rocket fire had to stop and called on Israel—which earned international condemnation for excessive use of force—to spare innocent lives during its raids.

“The United States of course understands Israel’s right to defend itself, but Israel needs to be very cognizant of the effects of its operations on innocent people,” she said on Tuesday.

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