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Rice makes little headway in Mideast

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Palestinian leaders rebuffed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's efforts to restart peace talks yesterday, as Israel warned that more violence could be just over the horizon.

Rice returned to the Middle East on a diplomatic damage-control mission to keep alive the Bush administration's hopes of brokering a peace deal by year's end.

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Peace talks slid to a halt on the eve of Rice's arrival after an exceptionally bloody Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip that left more than 110 people dead.

Standing alongside Rice after talks yesterday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas politely ignored her public prodding to resume negotiations with Israel.

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Israeli leaders are warning that the scaled-back military action might be little more than a lull in the government's attempt to quash the power of the militant Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.

"We are going to change the rules of this game," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told diplomats Monday. "We are not going to play according to their rules. We are not willing to accept this equation anymore."

During stops in Cairo, Egypt and Ramallah, West Bank, Rice sought to assuage Palestinian anger over the Israeli operation by publicly, though politely, chiding Israel.

"It is extremely important that they remember that there has to be a day after, a partner to work with, and that innocent people who have the bad fortune to have to live under Hamas control should not be subject to injury and death," Rice said with Abbas by her side. "There should really be a strong effort to spare innocent life."

But once Rice heads off today to a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, many expect the deadly fighting to resume.

"The continuation of rocket fire will lead to the continuation of our actions, even with higher intensity," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned in a speech yesterday.

With each round, Israel appears to be moving closer to a major invasion of the Gaza Strip. In a bid to end the near-daily rocket fire, Israel has used everything from artillery barrages to assassinations of key militants.

Last week, after Gaza militants unleashed their first concentrated barrage on the Israeli city of Ashkelon, Israel sent hundreds of soldiers into Gaza. More than 110 Palestinians, including 25 minors, and two Israeli soldiers were killed before Israel pulled back. Nearly half the Palestinians were killed Saturday, making it the deadliest day in the conflict in years.

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If Gaza militants target Ashkelon again in coming days, Israeli leaders have made it clear that Hamas should prepare for the worst.

"Israel left the Gaza Strip not in order to come back," Livni told the diplomats. "But we may find ourselves in a situation that we have no other alternative."

Israel took control of Gaza from Egypt during the 1967 Mideast war and withdrew its troops only in 2005.

Even now, Israeli leaders have reservations about sending large numbers of soldiers back into Gaza without a clear plan for getting out quickly.

However, Israel has options short of invasion that could pressure Hamas.

Israel could proceed with plans to cut off electricity for some of Gaza's 1.5 million residents. Barak has asked the state attorney for guidance on when Israel can launch airstrikes on civilian areas that militants are using to fire rockets. As it did during a Palestinian uprising, Israel also could target Hamas' political leaders.



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