Jerusalem/Gaza: Israelis and Palestinians have begun
tackling the "most difficult" core issues of their mutual
conflict, the US said Wednesday, but the second round of direct
peace negotiations was overshadowed by a surge of violence in
Briefing reporters at the end of a more than two-hour parley
between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, US envoy George Mitchell
said the new negotiations had moved "very quickly" and
"vigorously" to serious and substantial questions at the centre of
"We recognise that there are serious issues and challenges that
are highly sensitive for both leaders," said Mitchell. "To me it
is extremely impressive to see them both so engaged.
"It is an indicator ... that peace is possible and that it is
possible to conclude an agreement," he said.
The US envoy added the two parties had agreed their negotiators
would continue discussions next week. They would then decide when
the next Abbas-Netanyahu summit would take place.
The day of talks in Jerusalem followed a day of sessions in the
Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh Tuesday, in which Abbas
and Netanyahu also held two face-to-face meetings.
Their parley in Jerusalem was the first time in two years that
Abbas visited the Israeli prime minister's residence in Jerusalem.
He had been reluctant to enter into direct negotiations with the
nationalist Israeli leader, and the current talks, launched in a
first round in Washington early this month, come more than a year
after the right-leaning Netanyahu government took office.
Abbas wrote in the guest book that he returned to the prime
minister's residence after a long absence to continue the
negotiations out of "hope" for an eternal peace in the entire
But a surge in rocket and mortar fire and an Israeli retaliatory
airstrike on a smuggling tunnel in southern Gaza that killed one
Palestinian and injured three others overshadowed the talks.
The airstrike in the southern Gaza town of Rafah came after Gaza
militants fired at least 10 projectiles at Israel Wednesday - the
largest number of projectiles fired from Gaza in a single day
since March 2009.
They included a Russian-type Grad rocket, the first to hit north
of the southern Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon since the Gaza
war of the winter of 2008-2009, Israeli Channel 2 television
reported, as well as two phosphorous bombs.
The Israeli military confirmed the strike, noting in a statement
that the tunnel was used to smuggle militants into the coastal
strip "so that they could execute attacks against Israeli
A senior Israeli military officer, meanwhile, warned that Israel
expects militants to launch more rockets and mortars at the Jewish
state during the ongoing peace talks.
The officer, who spoke to journalists on condition of anonymity,
said militants in Gaza had in the past few days stepped up their
activity, including the planting of explosives near the border
with Israel as well as sniper fire at soldiers patrolling the
security fence along it.
Since Sunday, four Palestinians have been killed and at least five
injured, one critically, in Israeli retaliatory airstrikes and
Gunmen of the radical Islamist Hamas movement ruling Gaza killed
four Israelis, and wounded two others in two separate attack two
weeks ago, as Israelis and Palestinians were meeting in Washington
to relaunch the long-awaited direct negotiations.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, meeting Israeli
President Shimon Peres earlier Wednesday, urged Israelis and
Palestinians to have faith in the new peace negotiations, even
though she said she understood the widespread "scepticism, doubt
and disappointments" felt by both sides.
"I'm well aware of the obstacles that stand in the way of peace,"
she said, but added the status quo was unsustainable and the only
path to ensure Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state
was a comprehensive regional peace agreement.
After meeting Peres, the secretary of state also held talks with
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Jerusalem. She met
Netanyahu in the late afternoon, before she and Mitchell joined
Abbas and Netanyahu in their direct parley.
Clinton was scheduled to make the short journey from Jerusalem to
the West Bank city of Ramallah Thursday for another private talk
On Wednesday, she did not address the contentious issue of
Israel's partial freeze of construction in the occupied West Bank,
which is due to expire Sep 26 and threatens to jeopardise the
nascent direct talks. But in Sharm el-Sheikh Tuesday, she insisted
Israel should not resume building in Jewish settlements in the
Israeli media reported Wednesday however that Washington was
trying to work out a compromise to the Palestinian demand for a
full freeze, under which Israel could build up to 2,000 housing
units a year in 1.9 percent of the West Bank, which Abbas agreed
to give up in a land swap deal in previous negotiations with
former Israeli premier Ehud Olmert.