Mortars fire as Israeli, Palestinian officials meet
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- As mortar shells split the air in Gaza and the West Bank on Wednesday, Israeli and Palestinian officials met in Greece for a "frank, difficult exchange of views," but neither side offered much hope of negotiations resuming.
"In this meeting, we had an exchange of views, and we will continue talking. It is better talking than shooting," said Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erakat said the meeting was not a negotiation but a "frank, difficult exchange of views."
In a stand that echoed what the Palestinians have said before, Erakat said the Palestinian Authority would honor the agreement it had signed, would keep to security agreements signed in Egypt and is willing to resume final status negotiations "where they left off."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he will not negotiate under fire and the violence must stop. He has also rejected restarting the talks based on the offers made by his predecessor, Ehud Barak .
However, Erakat said Peres promised to take the Palestinian views to Sharon.
"We are a people with no arms, no tanks, no missiles, no gunships," said Erakat. "The language Israel is using -- whether it is through attacks, through siege, and through ... aggression -- is not going to get us anywhere."
Talks may resume soon
Despite the dim hope of negotiations resuming, the two sides have tentatively agreed to resume limited direct contacts. A meeting of top security officials may take place soon after exhortations from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, sources on both sides told CNN.
"I hope the people in charge of the military will meet either today or tomorrow. If the results will be as positive as the agreement to meet is, then this will open the way for negotiations," Peres said before his meeting with the Palestinians.
The United States will participate in that meeting, U.S. sources said. The CIA has been a party to those talks in the past, but the Bush administration decided last month to cut CIA participation in the security dialogue between the sides.
The security meeting, the sources said, is expected to take place at the home of U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk in Tel Aviv.
In addition, Sharon's son, Omri Sharon, met with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to urge him to curb the violence.
Ra'anan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman, said the meeting was "geared to one main purpose -- that is to see if the security coordination can be renewed to bring down and terminate the hostility."
Bullets and shells fly
On the ground, violence occurred in the West Bank and Gaza. A shootout between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians near the West Bank town of Nablus left six Palestinians wounded.
Earlier Wednesday, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman said, mortar fire had hit the Jewish settlement of Netzarim. He said the IDF had determined the fire was coming from a Force 17 position and returned fire with Israeli mortars.
Force 17 is the elite presidential guard unit charged with protecting Arafat. Israel has charged that Force 17 officers have been directly involved in attacks on Israel.
As that exchange of fire occurred, Peres met with Erakat, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Sha'ath, and European Union security affairs chief Javier Solana in Athens.
Solana urged the two sides to continue talking in an effort to break the current 6-month-long cycle of violence that has killed nearly 500 people.
"I have repeated my appeal to both sides to exercise maximum restraint and renew their security cooperation on a systematic basis," Solana said.
The talks mark the highest-level meeting of the two sides since the February 6 election of Sharon.
Peres had the blessing of Sharon, but Israel insisted the talks were limited to trying to end the fighting and did not breach Sharon's adamant stance that he won't negotiate under fire.
The talks follow a widespread attack on Palestinian Authority targets by Israeli forces Tuesday night after the IDF said Palestinian mortar fire aimed at a Jewish settlement in Gush Katif severely injured a baby.
More than 70 Palestinians were hurt, including policemen and civilians. The Israeli action included dozens of missiles fired from the air and by ground forces. They were directed, Israel said, at bases of various Palestinian security units which Israel accuses of fomenting the violence.
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