MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Violence in the Gaza Strip is threatening to damage the shaky peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel's defense minister is vowing to crack down even harder on the Gaza Strip which is controlled by the militant group Hamas. Israel is responding to ongoing rocket fire from Gaza and Hamas has claimed of responsibility for the first suicide bombing in Israel in more than a year. At the same time, there's pressure on Palestinian authority leaders now confined to the West Bank to open a dialogue with their bitter rival, Hamas.
As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, those talks could also jeopardize the already fragile talks with Israel.
ERIC WESTERVELT: So far this year, more than 90 Palestinians have died in Israeli air and ground attacks in the Gaza Strip. The vast majority of them were armed militants but several civilians have been killed as well, according to U.N. and Gaza health ministry figures. Including 43-year-old school teacher, Hani Naim(ph).
Yesterday, an Israeli missile struck his agricultural school, killing Naim as he left work. An Israeli military spokeswoman says the army was targeting militants launching rockets from a nearby olive grove. Umwalid Naim(ph) is Hani's cousin.
Ms. UMWALID NAIM: (Through translator) What's the fault Hani who he went to work early everyday to teach? What's the fault of his pregnant wife? What's the fault of his five kids left without a father? Did he or his young children launch rockets at the Jews?
WESTERVELT: There have been Israeli casualties too but far fewer. Hamas this week claimed credit for a suicide bombing in the desert city of Dimona Monday that killed a 73-year-old Israeli woman. Militants in Gaza also continued to fire low tech Kasam rockets at border communities in southern Israel. There have been few serious casualties from the Kasams. Two Israelis have been killed by Gaza rockets in the last year. But civilians have been wounded and buildings destroyed. Israel's response has included a tightening embargo and electricity cuts. Israel's military is now once again debating a wider military operation inside Gaza. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Thursday, vowed to, quote, "intensify our activity and the other side's loses until we resolve the Kasam problem."
Mark Regev, the spokesman for Israel's prime minister says the violence is threatening to overshadow talks with the West Bank leadership.
Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert): Hamas is the primary challenge. It's difficult to talk about thieves when you got these rockets coming into Israel every day. It's difficult to talk about thieves when you have suicide bombings. Now the current Palestinian leadership is against suicide bombings. It's against terrorism. And the question is to what extent can the moderate leadership grow in its ability to implement agreements.
WESTERVELT: But many in that moderate leadership say Israeli actions are damaging their ability to function. In an interview with Reuters today, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said near daily Israeli military operations in the West Bank are undermining the Palestinian authority's credibility and power. Fayyad said he now thinks it's unlikely that the two sides will reach an historic peace deal by year's end as envisioned by President Bush.
With the violence in Gaza escalating, some in the Fatah movement in the West Bank are urging dialogue with Hamas.
Dr. SABRI SAIDAM (Former Minister of Telecommunications And Information Technology, Palestine): And I believe Hamas has a moderate stream within it that needs to be encouraged.
WESTERVELT: Dr. Sabri Saidam, a former cabinet minister, is part of Fatah's young guard trying to invigorate a movement many see is out of touch and corrupt. Saidam says Hamas' recent move to break through the southern Gaza border with Egypt and other violence highlight an urgent need for Fatah to reach out to moderate elements within Hamas. If not, he warns, hardliners within the Islamist movement will only gain strength in the West Bank and undermine the fledgling peace talks.
Dr. SAIDAM: There is growing discontent within Fatah herself and within the Palestinian society at large and without an unified voice, there will not be any formula that succeeds whether to run daily lives or to engage in a more serious and tangible peace negotiations. With this discontent, I believe Hamas and Fatah will be pushed to eventual talks.
WESTERVELT: Yet any dialogue with Hamas would in turn alienate Israel, so there's a strategic split within Fatah about what course to take. Many have been deeply wary of talks with Hamas since its militants drove Fatah out of Gaza last June.
Muhib Salama(ph), a Fatah member of the Palestinian Parliament says any talks with Hamas need clear parameters.
Mr. MUHIB SALAMA (Fatah Member, Palestinian Parliament): (Through translator) I believe that talking is good but I believe also that putting conditions is very important because we do not want to set a precedent for Hamas or for any other party to think that they can determine the fate of a country through the military option.
WESTERVELT: Those conditions, Salama says, include Hamas' acceptance of the political program of the Palestine liberation organization with regard to peace talks. For Hamas, that would include tacit recognition of Israel's right to exist and acceptance of a two-state solution. So far those are concessions Hamas' political leadership remains unwilling to make.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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