Abbas, Bush discuss restarting Mideast peace talks
Gaza's borders remain sealed to contain Hamas
RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, emboldened by an outpouring of international support in his showdown with Hamas militants, yesterday told a receptive President Bush that it was time to restart Mideast peace talks.
Bush planned to relay their thoughts on how to proceed to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at a meeting in Washington today, a White House spokesman said.
Abbas's Hamas rivals were headed in a vastly different direction, facing deepening isolation after their violent takeover of the Gaza Strip.
Abbas expelled Hamas from the Palestinian government last week after the Islamist group routed his forces in Gaza, leaving the president's more moderate Fatah movement in control of the West Bank. Olmert made no public statements yesterday but Israel has expressed its desire to negotiate with a Palestinian government without Hamas. .
Israel and Egypt have sealed Gaza's borders, raising fears of a possible humanitarian crisis. After a weekend run on basic supplies, Gazans were calmed by Israeli assurances that humanitarian aid would go through.
At the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza, where about 300 Gazans have been trapped trying to escape Hamas rule, a clash between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen killed at least one Palestinian and wounded 15, the Israeli rescue service and Palestinian hospital officials said. Israel TV said as many as four people were killed.
Families and children, along with fleeing Fatah security men, slept on cardboard on the concrete floor of a narrow tin-roofed tunnel at the crossing where scores have been huddled for three days with no access to water or toilets.
Israel said it was allowing the passage of only international organizations' staff, people with special permission, and humanitarian cases.
"We believe these 300 are not in danger and they can go home," military spokesman Shlomo Dror said.
Also yesterday, militants in Gaza fired two rockets at southern Israel, the military and local media reported. One landed in the town of Sderot. Two Israelis were treated for shock. There was no claim of responsibility .
To bolster Abbas, the United States and the European Union said they were ending a 15-month embargo that cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in direct aid after Hamas won elections and formed a government.
Bush also called Abbas to offer his support, and Abbas said during the 15-minute conversation that he was ready to restart peace talks with Israel, according to an Abbas spokesman. Peacemaking stalled nearly seven years ago with the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising.
"President Abbas told Mr. Bush that this is the time to resume the political negotiations and to revive the hope of the Palestinian people," Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said.
In a phone call with Olmert, Jordan's King Abdullah II urged Palestinian and Israeli leaders to do the groundwork for restarting the peace process and achieve a two-state solution, Jordan's royal palace said.
The embargo against the Palestinian government has crippled the economy, which is heavily dependent on foreign aid. Under the sanctions, the government was unable to pay its 165,000 employees regular salaries. The government is the largest employer in the West Bank and Gaza .
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the Europeans will continue to deliver aid for Gaza -- where humanitarian conditions are more dire than in the West Bank -- through the United Nations or an ad hoc program whose handouts to many thousands of individual Palestinians bypass the Hamas administration.
Also yesterday, the head of the Gaza Strip's tiny Roman Catholic community said a school and convent were ransacked, burned, and looted during clashes last week .
Crosses were broken, a statue of Jesus was damaged, and prayer books were burned at the Rosary Sisters School and nearby convent, said the Rev. Manuel Musallem, head of Gaza's Latin church.
The damage took place Thursday but wasn't reported until days later because of the chaos that has prevailed since Hamas wrested power in Gaza, Musallem said.