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MIDDLE EAST CONFLICT

Barak to meet Egyptian President

3 min

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak will meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Monday. The latter has stepped in to mediate between Israel and Hamas, as Isreal regards Hamas as a terrorist organisation and will not negotiate with them directly.

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Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Monday will meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose goverment is mediating a truce between the Jewish state and Hamas, as tension mounts over rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

Barak is also expected to meet Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh where political leaders and business people are gathered for the Middle East World Economic Forum.

Egypt has been acting as mediator because Israel refuses to negotiate directly with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organisation.

Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in June last year, wants Israel, in exchange for halting rocket attacks, to lift its crippling blockade of the impoverished territory.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Israel was "very close" to deciding on what action to take to stop rocket attacks.

"Under no circumstances can we allow the situation in the south (of Israel) to continue the way it has in recent months, and the crossroads on a decision on how things will be handled is very close," Olmert said at a weekly cabinet meeting.

He declined to elaborate amid calls from some ministers for Israel to launch a widescale assault on Gaza to crush Palestinian militants, who fired a rocket at a shopping mall in southern Israel on Wednesday while US President George W Bush was in the country.

Bush wrapped up a Middle East tour with a speech in Egypt on Sunday accusing Hamas of pursuing a policy of terror.

"All nations in the region must stand together in confronting Hamas, which is attempting to undermine efforts at peace with continued acts of terror and violence," Bush said.

A Hamas delegation headed by former foreign minister Mahmud Zahar is expected to leave Gaza for Egypt on Monday, and another delegation from Damascus headed by Musa Abu Marzuq is expected later in the day, the official MENA news agency reported.

Both delegations will hold talks with Suleiman on Tuesday, MENA said.

But Israel is concerned that during any truce, Hamas would build up its arsenal with help from Iran, said Amos Gilad, political adviser to the defence ministry.

Despite calls for a large-scale military operation in Gaza, a group of former army and security officials have told the government that they support indirect talks with Hamas and oppose a major assault.

"Recognising that ending the Hamas regime in Gaza is not a realistic goal and that reinstating Fatah in the Gaza Strip by means of Israeli bayonets is not desirable... non-public negotiations should take place with Hamas through Egypt or anyone else acceptable to both sides," they wrote in a letter to Olmert.

In exchange for stopping rocket attacks, Hamas has said it wants Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza and reopen border crossings, especially Rafah on the frontier with Egypt.

Israel has demanded an end to both rocket attacks and arms smuggling from Egypt's Sinai peninsula, and progress in negotiations to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Palestinian militants in 2006.

Hamas wants the release of 450 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit, whose fate has become a major sticking point in truce negotiations.
  

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