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Israelis, Palestinians clash as Bush arrives in Israel

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  • NEW: Rocket hits Israeli mall after 4 Palestinians killed in Gaza, sources say
  • Peace talks between Israel and Bush "secret," national security adviser says
  • Israeli president alludes to "change of guards" in Mideast by January
  • Bush also to meet with Saudi king, Egypt's president, Palestinian Authority president
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TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Israelis and Palestinians clashed in Gaza, killing four Palestinians including a teen, as President Bush arrived Wednesday in Israel to prod the oft-stalled Mideast peace process.

The talks, which Bush lauds as the path to an independent Palestinian state, are "largely secret," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters en route to the Middle East, but negotiations are moving forward.

"There is less known about them publicly than is going on," Hadley said. "The issues are hard. And the process goes forward, and obviously the president is going to try and give some impetus to that process in the conversations he is having on his trip."

Hadley added, "One of the things he needs to do is rally the support of the Arab world behind both Israeli and the Palestinian leadership so that they will support whatever is negotiated between the two sides." Key players »

As those conversations were happening, a rocket hit a shopping mall center in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, wounding at least 14 people, including a mother and an infant, the Israeli military and emergency officials said.

Islamic Jihad sources said the militant group claims responsibility for the attack, although Israel always holds Gaza's Hamas leadership responsible for attacks carried out by militants in Gaza.

Islamic Jihad is a militant group that operates in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas leaders. Hamas operates a separate militant group called the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades.

Later Wednesday, the Israeli military attacked a group of armed men in northern Gaza, according to Palestinian sources and Israel Defense Forces. Palestinian authorities said two militants were killed. It is not clear if they were killed in an airstrike or an artillery strike.

Israeli police identified the missile that hit Ashkelon as a Grad rocket, which has a longer range than the Qassam rockets frequently used by Palestinian militants in Gaza.

There has been a steady increase in rocket and mortar launchings from Gaza since Hamas took control of the territory last year.

In an interview with al-Arabiya television before he left for the Mideast, Bush said a peace deal by year's end was still possible, and that observers should not be discouraged that he was meeting separately with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. It was more about logistics than discord, he said.

"It's a very complicated process, and I don't think necessarily not having a trilateral meeting should be read as anything other than that it just didn't work out," he told the station Monday. "It's not a sign that the talks aren't going forward." Video Watch how the trip combines business, pleasure »

After Bush arrived in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Israeli President Shimon Peres lamented the coming end to Bush's presidency in January, calling Bush's tenure a "moving" eight years.

"I think before you will leave office, you will see a change of guards here in the Middle East," Peres said.

As for prospects of peace in the Mideast, Peres said Lebanon's Hezbollah and Gaza's Hamas were the key deterrents to achieving harmony in the region. The latest violence perpetrated by the groups -- both of which are considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. and Israel -- "may be the last effort by some very extremist group[s] to remain alive," he said.

Neither Lebanon nor the Palestinian territories are enemies of Israel, Peres said, emphasizing that Hezbollah's and Hamas' anti-Semitic views were not representative of the attitudes of the average Lebanese or Palestinian person.

Bush responded: "The objective of the United States must be to, one, support our strongest ally and friend in the Middle East -- the only true democracy against the forces of terror that you just described -- and at the same time, talk about a hopeful future."

In his al-Arabiya interview earlier this week, Bush said economic development and security were key to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"People want to see whether or not the state is capable of protecting them," he said. "As this Palestinian force gets more capable, we expect the Israelis to move back -- and move back to the point where the state can actually begin to function a little bit in the West Bank."

Gaza is controlled by Hamas, which wrested the region from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement in violent clashes last year. The power base for Abbas, a U.S. ally, is anchored firmly in the West Bank. He wields little influence in Gaza.

Bush and the first lady were greeted at Ben Gurion International Airport by Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as well as most of Israel's Cabinet and religious leaders.

On his arrival, Bush hailed the close relationship between the United States and the Jewish state.

He drew comparisons between the two nations, saying that "both faced great challenges when they were founded, and our two nations have both relied on the same principles to help us succeed," including democracy, welcoming immigrants and building "an enduring alliance to confront terrorists and tyrants."

The United States, Olmert said, supported Israel "in times of hope and in moments of crisis." And the president, he said, "has been our closest ally and partner."

Despite that thorny issues like Mideast peace and oil prices are atop Bush's agenda, the trip is not all business. See Bush's full itinerary »

Bush was visiting Israel, in part, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state. The 61-year-old president quipped, "It doesn't seem that old." Video Watch Bush's speech marking the anniversary »

The meeting between U.S. and Israeli leaders came as Palestinian medical and security sources reported that four Palestinians were killed in Israeli airstrikes and shelling and as a rocket hit a shopping mall in the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

The rocket blew out windows at the mall and injured at least 14 people, including a mother and infant, Israeli military and emergency officials said. The militant Palestinian group, Islamic Jihad, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Israeli police identified the missile that hit Ashkelon as a Grad rocket, which has a longer range than the Qassam rockets frequently used by Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Later Wednesday, an Israeli air strike hit a group of armed men in northern Gaza, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Palestinian authorities said two militants were killed.

During his Mideast tour, Bush also is scheduled to visit oil-rich Saudi Arabia, where he will meet King Abdullah amid increasing American frustration at gas prices.

Congress on Monday directed Bush to stop filling the government's emergency oil supply for six months to try to bring prices down, a move Bush has argued would have little effect.

"His visit to Saudi Arabia will also commemorate the 75th anniversary of the formal establishment of U.S.-Saudi relations," the White House said.

Bush will then head to Egypt, where he will meet with another U.S. ally, President Hosni Mubarak. He will also meet with Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah II.

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Egypt is trying to broker an agreement between Israeli and Hamas leaders to end attacks on each other because the tit-for-tat violence threatens the broader attempt to reach a peace deal.

Bush is scheduled to deliver remarks at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday, the final day of his trip.

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