Israeli Defense Minister Plans to Meet With Palestinian Officials

From Times Wire Services

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz will hold talks with Palestinian leaders next week, political sources said Friday, after his chief of staff said a harsh security clampdown on Palestinian areas was backfiring.

It would be the first such ministerial meeting between the two sides since Ahmed Korei was named Palestinian Authority prime minister in September.

Israeli political sources said the head of the Defense Ministry's diplomatic and security branch, Amos Gilad, held exploratory talks with Palestinian Authority officials this week to pave the way for a meeting involving Mofaz next week.

One source called it "the beginning of new contacts in which both sides are stating initial positions for further talks" -- likely to focus on easing Israel's military grip in Palestinian areas in exchange for Palestinian undertakings to curb violence.

The move came after Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon told newspaper columnists this week that imposing blockades with the stated aim of preventing suicide attacks only spread hatred for Israel by pinning down an entire population.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's national security advisor, Jibril Rajoub, said no meeting with Mofaz had been scheduled, but added: "We have no veto on any meeting with the Israeli side provided such meetings are serious and not for the sake of holding meetings."

Amid continuing security concerns, Israel imposed tight rules on who could attend Ramadan prayers in Jerusalem at a disputed site known as the Temple Mount to Jews and as Haram al Sharif to Muslims. Fearing that youths would provoke clashes, police limited visitors from outside Jerusalem to older, married Palestinians.

Israeli troops near the West Bank town of Bethlehem scuffled with Muslim worshippers trying to go to the prayers, injuring one Palestinian.

Also Friday, the United States offered a $5-million reward in the investigation of a deadly bombing of a U.S. convoy in the Gaza Strip.

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