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UK: Mideast at 'fork in road'


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A wounded Palestinian boy is wheeled into a hospital treatment room Sunday in Gaza City.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has condemned the latest violence in the Middle East and urged Israelis and Palestinians to return to the U.S.-backed road map for peace.

Straw made his comments Monday, the day after Israeli forces raided two Gaza refugee camps, killing at least 14 Palestinians -- including several boys, according to Palestinian witnesses, security and medical sources.

The deaths on Sunday took place after Israeli forces encountered heavy fire from Palestinians, shortly after entering Nusseirat and El Bureij camps, the sources added.

Straw was speaking after meeting Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei for the first time since his appointment last year.

The foreign secretary said he was shocked by Sunday's violence, adding that the stalled peace process was at a "fork in the road."

Britain was strongly committed to the road map that envisages an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, he said.

Straw said the road map should be restarted "so Palestinians and Israelis can feel hope rather than despair.

"Down one road lies a two-state solution supported by the majority of Palestinians and Israelis and the international community. Down the other road simply lies more violence and more despair," he said.

Qorei, who condemned the incursions, described the talks as constructive. "We have to convince people enough is enough and put an end to this circle of violence," he said.

The Palestinian prime minister also gave qualified support for a possible Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as suggested last month by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Qorei said: "In principle we welcome the withdrawal ... we welcome the evacuation of the settlements."

He told reporters that he and Straw had discussed how to incorporate the plan into the U.S.-backed "road map" for peace.

CNN's Senior International Correspondent Sheila MacVicar said it was possible that Israeli forces were now stepping up activity in Gaza ahead of a possible pullout in order to avoid a loss of face.

"There is a view put forward by Israeli commentators in the Israeli press and elsewhere that perhaps Israel's military is taking very strong action in advance of a pullout so that, in the words of one Israeli commentator, Israel's military is not seen as withdrawing from Gaza with its tail between its legs.

"That is a scenario they would wish to avoid after the withdrawal from south Lebanon and the image that that presented in 2000.

"What you've got now is it appears Israel forces saying, 'We're withdrawing from a position of strength; before we do that we're going to try to hammer as many militants as we can possibly attract towards us.' This appears to be partially what happened over the weekend although some of those killed were children."

Hamas said nine of those killed in Sunday's raid were members of the Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist group, and the rest were civilians, including three boys under age 14.

Hamas' military wing -- Izzedine al Qassam -- has claimed responsibility for attacks on Israeli military targets as well as attacks aimed at civilians. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel.

The Israeli military has said it has been launching raids into Palestinian territories to target terrorists who may be planning attacks on Israelis.

Sunday's raids came a day after Palestinian militants attempted to infiltrate the Israeli side of the massive Erez industrial region. Four militants and two Palestinian police died Saturday in the three-vehicle assault at the Erez border crossing between northern Gaza and Israel. (Full story)


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