Ahead of peace talks, rocket fire and air strikes

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JERUSALEM -- Shortly before Israelis and Palestinians sat down Wednesday for the first direct peace negotiations in five years, Israeli war planes struck two sites in Gaza in response to rockets fired from the Palestinian enclave.

The rocket fire and counterattack showed the obstacles the talks face in achieving Washington's stated goal of reaching a resolution within nine months. With animosity and distrust high, the talks were shrouded in secrecy, lest any detail leak out and further inflame the participants.

An Israeli official involved in the process said the idea was for "serious, intensive and intimate negotiations" aimed at achieving the most progress possible with the least amount of public engagement.

The site of the talks and the exact hour they were to start were not disclosed ahead of time. The Israeli official said there would probably be no public statements. It was even unclear whether the session would wrap up Wednesday night or continue today.

What was clear was that the Israeli team was being led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Isaac Molho, special envoy to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; and the Palestinian side was being led by senior negotiators Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh. Martin S. Indyk, the senior U.S. envoy to the talks, and deputy envoy Frank Lowenstein were also in Jerusalem.

But the secrecy did little to disguise the issues that continued to fuel distrust and animosity between the parties. Israel's decisions in recent days to continue construction of settler housing in disputed areas has infuriated the Palestinians. And rockets fired from Gaza into Israel underlined the simmering tensions and potential for confrontation in the volatile area after weeks of relative quiet.

Even as peace talks were taking place, the Israeli military said it hit concealed rocket launchers in the northern Gaza Strip after a rocket fired from the Palestinian coastal territory, which is controlled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, landed in an open area across the border.

"This is an absurd situation that would not be tolerated anywhere else in the world," Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said in a statement. He said the military "will continue to operate in order to safeguard Israel's civilians and combat terror and its infrastructure in the Gaza Strip."

Israel is conducting peace negotiations with Hamas' arch rivals, the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, who exercise limited self-rule in the West Bank. The goal of the talks is to reach a final settlement for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

But many Israelis and Palestinians are skeptical about the outcome. Among other things, Israelis point out that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has no control over what happens in Gaza. Hamas has made an effort to enforce a cease-fire along the Israel-Gaza border that was brokered by Egypt after a fierce round of cross-border fighting in November.

But some smaller, more radical groups in Gaza sometimes operate against Israel, with or without permission from Hamas.

For many Palestinians, meanwhile, Israel's recent announcements of more settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas sought by the Palestinians for their future state, cast a pall over the talks before they even started.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official authorized by the Palestinian leadership to comment on the talks, said Israel's position that it was authorizing new building in areas it intends to keep would "lead to the collapse of the negotiations." Mr. Abed Rabbo on Wednesday told the official Voice of Palestine, "We are dealing with thieves who steal the land and do not respect any human or international rules."

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