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Middle East peace talks start up

Israel and Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip have begun indirect talks aimed at forging a new era of relations following a ceasefire that ended the heaviest fighting in nearly four years.

The talks, being mediated by Egypt, were the first negotiations since the ceasefire took effect last Wednesday, halting eight days of airstrikes targeting militant groups in the Palestinian territory and rocket attacks that reached deep into Israel.

Israel launched 1,500 airstrikes in a bid to end rocket attacks out of Gaza, while the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant groups fired a similar number of rockets at Israeli cities. More than 160 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians were killed. Palestinian attacks killed Six Israelis, including four civilians and two soldiers.

Now the fighting has subsided, Egypt is working with the sides on carrying out the second phase of the agreement: negotiating new border arrangements for the impoverished coastal strip.

The negotiations will not be simple. The militants want Israel to lift what remains of its blockade of Gaza, imposed five years ago after Hamas seized control of the territory from its Western-backed rival Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. While Israel has eased the blockade in recent years, key restrictions remain in place on exports out of Gaza and the entry of badly needed building materials into the territory.

The Palestinians are hopeful that Egypt's new Islamist government will ease its own restrictions on movement in and out of the territory. Egypt still limits foot traffic through the Rafah border crossing. The militants also hope to turn the Rafah terminal into a major cargo crossing.

In return, Israel wants an end to arms smuggling into Gaza. Iranian-made weapons have made their way into Gaza through a circuitous route that ends with underground tunnels along the Egyptian border.

But militant leaders already have said they will not give up the vast arsenals they have accumulated. In the recent fighting, Hamas and Islamic Jihad unveiled new rockets capable of striking deep into the Israeli heartland, in addition to anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shallah said Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called him and Hamas' prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, to offer congratulations after their battle with Israel.

"Iran has been providing us with the support we needed to defend ourselves in the face of the Zionist occupation. Iran supported us militarily and financially and with everything we need to stand steadfast on our land," he said. "We appreciate that and hope that all the Arab countries do the same."


From Belfast Telegraph