Palestinian rockets fall ahead of peace talks

November 17, 2008 4:01:38 AM PST
Palestinian militants fired a barrage of rockets into southern Israel on Monday, a police spokesman said, causing no injuries but casting a shadow over a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Israel's caretaker prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have been meeting regularly over the past year to discuss ongoing peace efforts. But the latest flare-up between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip threatened to dominate Monday's discussions.

Abbas made no comment to reporters as he arrived for the talks at Olmert's official residence in Jerusalem.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said six rockets landed in southern Israel. All of the rockets landed in open areas, he said.

The rockets were the latest salvo in nearly two weeks of violence that has severely strained a five-month-old truce between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers. Each side says it wants to restore the calm, but the near-daily cycle of Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes has left the Egyptian-brokered agreement near collapse.

Islamic Jihad, a smaller militant group, claimed responsibility for Monday's attack.

The rockets were fired as Britain's foreign minister, David Miliband, visited the rocket-scarred town of Sderot near the border with Gaza. It was not immediately clear whether Miliband was still in the area at the time of the attack.

Hamas, an Islamic militant group committed to Israel's destruction, has ruled Gaza since defeating Abbas' forces there in June 2007. Abbas, who rules from the West Bank, still claims to preside over Gaza as well.

Israeli officials said the Gaza situation would be high on the agenda of Monday's talks with Abbas. The Palestinian leader has appealed for an end to the violence and urged Israel to ease a blockade on Gaza.

Israel has shut its border crossings with Gaza for the past two weeks, preventing deliveries of fuel and basic supplies. The closure has forced the United Nations to halt food deliveries and has led to blackouts and shortages of other goods. Both the European Union and the U.N. secretary-general have urged Israel to reopen the borders.

Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner said Israel planned to allow 30 trucks carrying humanitarian supplies for the United Nations and Red Cross into Gaza on Monday, despite the rocket fire.

"Our ability to continue this depends on the continuation of the rocket fire," he said.

Olmert and Abbas relaunched peace talks a year ago at a U.S.-hosted summit, and set a December 2008 target for completing a final agreement. There have been no breakthroughs, and both sides have acknowledged they will not meet the timeline. The men hope to lay the foundation for further talks after Olmert leaves office early next year.

Olmert is being forced from office by a corruption scandal, and the country is set to hold elections on Feb. 10.

Polls predict a tight race between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Olmert's successor as leader of the centrist Kadima Party, and hardline opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Livni, who has been Olmert's chief negotiator, wants to continue talks with the Palestinians. Netanyahu, a former prime minister, says the talks have failed and believes future negotiations should focus on developing the Palestinian economy.