Sharon, Abbas make little progress

AN UNPRECEDENTED SUMMIT between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders broke up in Jerusalem on Tuesday amid bitter arguments and recriminations over continuing violence, yielding few tangible results.

Palestinian officials at the meeting said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began the two-hour summit with a humiliating 20-minute lecture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about his failure to halt attacks.

An angry Abbas responded by saying he had done everything possible to bring calm to the region and rejected demands to disarm the factions.

Although officials said agreement had been reached in principle on a number of issues, Sharon linked any progress to the Palestinians’ ability to “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure” of factions such as Islamic Jihad.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who also attended the talks at Sharon’s west Jerusalem residence, told a post-summit news conference that “none of the issues improved or progressed up to the levels of our people’s expectations.”

“Overall what was presented to us was not convincing or satisfying at all,” Qureia added.

Abbas had been expected to address the news conference, and his absence underlined the impression that the summit had been a failure.

Another Palestinian official said Sharon began the summit with a “20-minute lecture that Palestinian efforts in the fight against terrorism were not enough.”

Abbas said he had “done everything” to shore up the truce and that he had “no mandate from the people” to disarm armed Palestinian groups, the source added.

Sharon’s spokesman confirmed that Israel had offered to transfer security control to the Palestinians in the West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Qalqiliya provided the Palestinians act against the factions — a proviso that has halted similar transfers in the past.

“We are offering [the transfers] if they will make the necessary security plan,” Raanan Gissin told AFP, saying the Palestinians “know exactly what that means.”

Responsibility for security in both cities should have been transferred several months ago as part of agreements reached at the pair’s previous summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh on February 8.

Gissin said Sharon also made clear that he was willing to release more of the 7,000-plus Palestinians held in Israeli prisons but similarly on condition that Abbas’ regime “stop fugitives, put militants under control and prevent terrorist activity.”

“All this is dependent on the situation on the ground,” he said. “It’s a matter of life and death for the Israeli people.”

The sour atmosphere at the summit — the first time that top-level leaders from the two sides had met in the holy city — was in stark contrast to the last meeting, when both men declared an end to hostilities at a summit hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

There was little fanfare this time around, with reporters and photographers kept away from the venue.

Abbas had managed to persuade the factions to call a de facto ceasefire at the start of the year, but the quiet has been unravelling in recent days.

In a highly embarrassing incident for Abbas, a 21-year-old Gaza woman was arrested Monday allegedly on her way to bomb a hospital on behalf of a faction loosely linked to the governing Fateh movement.

Her detention came hours after Palestinians shot dead a Jewish settler in a West Bank attack claimed by Islamic Jihad which also took part in a deadly attack on an Israeli army post near the Gaza border on Sunday.

In response, Israeli troops arrested more than 50 Jihad members in the West Bank overnight. The army had suspended such operations except in cases where wanted men were believed to be on the verge of carrying out an attack.

Lieutenant Colonel Erez Weiner, head of military operations in the West Bank, said the detainees were linked to the bombing of a Tel Aviv nightclub in February that killed five Israelis.

As the summit began, Palestinian witnesses said an unmanned Israeli spy plane fired two missiles in northern Gaza without causing injuries. There was no immediate Israeli comment.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met both leaders at the weekend, warned that time was running out for them to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal.

Gissin said the Israelis had approved Palestinian plans for a deep seaport in Gaza and would not stop them planning to re-open a mothballed airport in the south of the territory.

Train-truck collision

Meanwhile, emergency services and police said at least seven people were killed and more than 100 injured Tuesday when a packed commuter train hit a lorry in southern Israel.

Medics estimated the number of injured at well over 100, with four in critical condition, 11 seriously injured and another 27 in moderate condition after the crash near Kiryat Gat in southern Israel.

Police quoted by Channel 2 private television said the train, which was heading for the southern city of Beersheva, hit a lorry that was crossing the tracks in the middle of fields belonging to a kibbutz. Medics said the lorry driver was among the dead.

Channel 2 television said the collision occurred when the train hit a construction lorry, which had involved in tarmacking a new road being built just adjacent to the tracks.

Police sources told the channel the lorry had most likely stalled or somehow become stuck on the tracks just before the train approached.

The train driver apparently tried to make an emergency stop but smashed into the truck at around 90 kilometres per hour.

The 500-seat train crashed at the height of the evening rush-hour, with passenger Yonah Lichtenstein telling army radio the train “was full, including the first carriage.”

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