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Abbas visits Gaza Strip amid conflict

Ibrahim Barzak Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The Palestinian leader traveled to Gaza on Wednesday to reinforce a shaky truce with Israel and settle disputes with militant groups, but violence punctuated his visit as fighters fired rockets at Jewish settlements and Israel responded with an airstrike.

Mahmoud Abbas was expected to remain in Gaza for several days, holding talks with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders as well as his own Fatah party about a range of issues.

For the second day in a row, Hamas and Islamic Jihad cells aimed rockets and mortar shells at Jewish settlements. No casualties were reported. Three workers were killed by a mortar shell Tuesday.

Israel hit back Wednesday afternoon. In a strike clearly designed to limit political fallout, an Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a mortar launcher and an empty vehicle, while the militants escaped.

The renewed violence, which comes despite a truce declared four months ago, was Abbas’ first subject. On arrival in Gaza, he denounced the Israeli airstrike.

“It’s an unjustified operation, because it will destroy the truce,” he told reporters.

The cease-fire, declared Feb. 8 at a summit in Egypt by Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, does not appear in danger of collapse, because both sides are intent on preserving it. However, flare-ups like those of the past two days can spiral out of control.

The violence is linked by many to internal Palestinian conflicts. Hamas is fielding candidates in a parliamentary election for the first time, and its leaders are angry with Abbas for announcing an indefinite postponement of the election, originally set for July 17. Hamas was set to cash in on voter disaffection with Fatah rule after 10 years of mismanagement and corruption.

Igniting violence with Israel is a Hamas method of maintaining its popularity, while the main interest of Israeli and Palestinian leadership is to maintain the relative calm through Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, set to begin in mid-August.

On Wednesday night, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met his Palestinian counterpart, Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, to discuss the pullout. The talks were held in a good atmosphere, Yousef’s spokesman said. Recent talks have ended in discord.

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