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Israel Mulls Freezing Hunt for Palestinian Militants (REUTERS) By Dan Williams JERUSALEM, ISRAEL Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah 02/02/05 03:58 AM ET)Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=7509598 Reuters News Service Reuters News Service Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel may freeze its hunt for Palestinian militants to boost moderate new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, officials said on Wednesday.

Abbas has made resuming peace talks conditional on an end to attacks on militants whom he has coaxed into a tacit truce in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners by Israel.

Officials said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would convene his inner cabinet on Thursday to weigh a halt to pursuit of wanted men before a first summit with Abbas expected this month after a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"We are talking not about granting clemency, but a freeze. A freeze means that everything is temporary," senior Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad told Israel´s Army Radio.

"That is, if they resume terror, and the murders and attacks continue, then we will resume vigorous action. Ultimately you need a reliable partner, otherwise there will be no solution."

Israel had earlier refused to back off its demand, enshrined in a U.S.-led peace "road map," for a Palestinian crackdown on factions spearheading a four-year-long uprising. Some of the fugitives are in groups sworn to Israel´s destruction.

But to avoid civil strife, Abbas aims to co-opt rather than try to disarm and jail militants. He has engaged them in truce talks that have secured a rare calm and prompted Israel to curtail missions to kill or capture militant leaders.

Israeli media said the Shin Bet security service had balked at including militants wanted for deadly attacks in the amnesty, which would be finalized in security talks with Palestinians.

"This issue was discussed with the Israeli side and we will hold another meeting tomorrow," Palestinian Negotiations Minister Saeb Erekat told Reuters in the West Bank.

Abbas, whose election last month to succeed Yasser Arafat revived Middle East peace hopes, hopes the informal cease-fire would prevent chaos when Israel evacuates the occupied territory this summer under a Sharon plan to "disengage" from conflict.

Thousands of Palestinian security forces have fanned out in Gaza after an absence of years to stabilize the truce and Israel has raised the prospect of a follow-up pullback from cities in the occupied West Bank, a long-time Palestinian demand.

Rice, who heads to the Middle East next week to promote the road map to Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza, on Tuesday held out the possibility of U.S. support to strengthen Abbas´s security forces.

"Obviously the Palestinians are going to need help in terms of training and equipping their new security forces and I am sure that there will be ways that we might be involved in that," she told Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

"What I hope to do when I go there is to try and sustain -- help to sustain -- the momentum that they (Israelis and Palestinians) have clearly developed over the last several weeks." (Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah) (© Reuters 2005 02/02/05)

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