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Israel, Palestinians agree to resume talks amid Gaza offensive

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  • NEW: Mahmoud Abbas says resuming talks will ultimately yield Palestinian state
  • NEW: Rice: U.S. to meet with officials from Egypt, Israel, Palestinian territories
  • NEW: Rice: U.S. won't let Hamas hold hostage the prospect of Palestinian state
  • At least 110 Palestinians, two Israeli soldiers killed in earlier incursions
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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday he will heed calls to renew peace talks with Israel -- an about-face from earlier in the day when he said Palestinians wouldn't return to the table before reaching a cease-fire.

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President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday he would renew talks with Israel, but neither side indicated when.

Calling peace "our strategic choice," Abbas said in a statement, "Palestinians will resume peace talks with Israel." He said the move will end the Israeli "occupation" of the Palestinian territories and ultimately yield a Palestinian state.

Neither Abbas nor Israel indicated when talks would resume.

The turnaround came as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, and as the Israeli Security Cabinet approved further military action against Hamas and other militants launching rockets into Israel from Gaza.

Rice said stopping the rocket attacks was key to achieving peace and blasted Hamas leaders for not taking action against militants. Video Watch how Gaza civilians are getting caught in the crossfire »

"Hamas, which in effect holds the people of Gaza hostage in their hands, is now trying to make the path to a Palestinian state hostage to them," Rice said. "We cannot permit that to happen."

After her meetings in Jerusalem, Rice will fly to Brussels, Belgium, for NATO ministerial meetings.

Israel on Monday ended a five-day military operation in Gaza, the day before Rice arrived in the West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with Palestinian leaders. The operation killed at least 110 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers, sources said.

On Tuesday, Israel returned to Gaza, entering the southern town of Khan Yunis, where it claimed to have killed two militants. While Gaza has played host to most of the violence in recent days, there also have been clashes between Israeli soldiers and stone-throwing Palestinian youths in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Video Watch the fighting take place in the streets »

The incursions have not stopped the rocket fire. At least eleven rockets sailed into Israel on Wednesday.

Before Abbas agreed to return to the negotiating table, the Israeli Security Cabinet met Wednesday and approved attacks on rocket-launching sites and Hamas institutions in Gaza. The cabinet noted Israel also would continue peace talks and Israeli military leaders would work to avoid a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, "to the extent that the matter depends on Israel."

Gaza is controlled by Hamas, which wrested control of the region from Abbas' Fatah movement last year. Abbas' power is anchored firmly in the West Bank. He wields little influence in Gaza.

Before agreeing to renew peace talks Wednesday, Abbas held a news conference in Ramallah, saying, "Once the truce is achieved, the road will be open for negotiations." Abbas had suspended talks last week after Israeli forces launched a major ground incursion in Gaza in response to rocket attacks on southern Israel.

Rice applauded Abbas' change of heart Wednesday.

"I am pleased that the parties have said that they're going to resume negotiations, they intend to do that, and that contacts will begin between them to bring that about," Rice said Wednesday, appearing at a news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Earlier in the day, Rice denounced Abbas' refusal to return to the negotiating table, saying the Palestinian president could not demand a cease-fire as a pre-condition for resuming talks.

"There is a path forward," she said.

Many analysts say truce negotiations would require talks with Gaza's Hamas leadership. Israel and the United States refuse to negotiate with Hamas until it denounces terrorism and recognizes Israel's right to exist.

Abbas said Wednesday there are "real efforts" by Egyptian leaders to help achieve a truce. Rice said she is sending Assistant Secretary of State David Welch to Cairo, Egypt, to discuss mediation efforts.

Egypt, which borders Gaza, is one of few Muslim countries that has diplomatic relations with Israel. It has acted as mediator in previous Mideast peace efforts.

Rice said Welch will discuss several issues with Egyptian leaders, including tunnels running under the Gaza-Egypt border that "Hamas is using to smuggle goods and weaponry into Gaza."

Both Israeli and Palestinian representatives will meet next week with Lt. Gen. William Fraser III, appointed by Bush to help monitor the Mideast peace talks, Rice said.

Fraser will convene a three-way committee -- possibly Thursday -- to discuss both sides' obligations under the "road map" to peace established in 2003 by the Mideast Quartet, composed of the United States, U.N., Russia and the European Union, she said.

Rice has called on both sides to end the violence, telling the Hamas leadership to take the initiative to stop rocket attacks and warning Israel that it should avoid killing civilians or causing a humanitarian crisis.

"It ought to be pretty clear how calm comes about: The rocket attacks against Israel ought to stop," Rice said. "Israel also needs to be very careful about innocent people who get caught in the crossfire [and] about the humanitarian conditions in Gaza."

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On Tuesday, Rice said she was optimistic that peace was possible: "We must all keep our eye on what we are trying to achieve. And what we are trying to achieve is indeed not easy. And that is to conclude an agreement that can lead to the establishment of a state, to conclude that agreement by the end of this year. I still believe that can be done."

President Bush, too, has expressed optimism, saying Tuesday that he would like Israel and the Palestinians to forge a peace agreement before his term ends in 10 months. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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