Egyptian intelligence chief in Israel for talks

May 12, 2008 9:37:33 AM PDT
Egypt dispatched its powerful intelligence chief to Israel on Monday in an attempt to mediate an end to months of violence in the Gaza Strip, but Israeli leaders said there would be no truce unless Gaza militants release an Israeli soldier they have held captive for nearly two years. As mediator Omar Suleiman completed his talks, militants fired a rocket from Gaza that struck a house in an Israeli village, killing a woman and seriously wounding another Israeli, rescue services said. Islamic Jihad said it fired rockets at the time of the fatal attack.

Suleiman's meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other top leaders were aimed at wrapping up a cease-fire between Israel's military and Palestinian gunmen in Gaza. Israeli troops regularly clash there with militants who fire rockets at Israeli towns and attack border patrols. The crude rockets and mortar attacks have killed 15 people since late 2001.

Suleiman, a central figure behind the scenes in the Egyptian regime who serves as a top-level envoy for President Hosni Mubarak, told reporters that he had "high expectations" for the visit. But he made little apparent progress.

The Egyptians have been trying to close a deal for months between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic group that took over Gaza last June, and chances of success remained uncertain. Officially, Israel says it isn't negotiating with Hamas at all.

The proposed cease-fire would be for six months. It would cover only the Gaza Strip, after Hamas dropped an earlier demand that it include the West Bank as well.

Israel fears that Hamas will only use a lull in fighting to rearm, strengthen its rule and prepare for another round of fighting. Hamas officials have acknowledged this is one of their goals.

A central hitch in a potential deal is the fate of Cpl. Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas militants in a cross-border raid in June 2006, and held in Gaza since then. Talks on a prisoner swap have stalled over disagreements about which prisoners Israel would release in return. Hamas wants hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including people convicted of murder, to be freed.

Meeting with the Egyptian envoy Monday, Israel's leaders explicitly linked the cease-fire to Schalit, telling Suleiman there would be no truce if the soldier remained a prisoner.

Noam Schalit, the soldier's father, also insisted that any deal include his son. Hamas officials said Israel was trying to torpedo the possibility of a truce.

If Hamas wants Israel to call off its military operations, the Israeli officials told Suleiman, Hamas must not only halt its attacks but also the arms smuggling that has allowed the group to turn itself from a ragtag militia into a well-armed force.

Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said his group was waiting for Israel's response. "We hope that logic will guide the Israeli side and lead them to stop their aggression and their escalation and to end the siege," Zahar said.

Islamic Jihad, the group behind Monday's rocket attack, has said it will not formally sign on to any cease-fire. But one of the group's leaders, Nafez Azzam, said Monday the group "has agreed to give the Egyptian efforts a chance."