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Israel targets Islamic Jihad before talks

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By Cynthia Johnston

JERUSALEM, June 21 (Reuters) - Israeli forces rounded up dozens of suspected West Bank militants in a sign of impatience with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas just hours before a summit on Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The operation, in which the army said 52 members of Islamic Jihad were taken into custody, was the biggest sweep against wanted militants since Abbas and Sharon declared a truce at their previous meeting on Feb. 8.

It followed an Islamic Jihad drive-by shooting that killed a Jewish settler in the West Bank on Monday and recent mortar bomb and rocket attacks by the group against Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and a town in southern Israel.

Islamic Jihad said the attacks came in response to recent Israeli raids in the West Bank against several of its men.

Israel's planned pullout from the Gaza Strip in mid-August will be high on the agenda of the first meeting between an Israeli prime minister and a Palestinian president in Jerusalem, a holy city at the centre of the Middle East dispute.

From Sharon's side, the talks will focus on steps to prevent Palestinian militants from disrupting the withdrawal and filling a potential power vacuum in Gaza afterwards. Israel says Abbas has not done enough.

"As things stand now, (Abbas's) powers have not been brought to bear in fighting terror," Israeli Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Israel Radio.

Abbas, whose election in January to succeed the late Yasser Arafat brought new hopes of peace, wants to be able to show militants he has won clear concessions from Israel in return for efforts to ensure calm during the pullout.

But an Islamic Jihad spokesman in the West Bank urged him to cancel the summit in the wake of the Israeli operation.

"We urge Abu Mazen not to go to meet Sharon because of the continued Zionist assaults against our people. Those who were arrested were not only Islamic Jihad supporters but they were Palestinians, part of Abu Mazen's people," the spokesman said.

PALESTINIANS SEEK ISRAELI PULLBACKS

Washington is counting on Israel's pullout from all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank to kick-start a U.S.-backed international peace "road map" plan, which envisages the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Sharon, however, reaffirmed at talks in Jerusalem on Sunday with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that he would not enter into talks on permanent peace deal with the Palestinians until Abbas disarmed and dismantled militant groups.

Chief Palestinian negotiator said Abbas would press Sharon for further Israeli troop pullbacks from West Bank cities, two of which have been turned over to Palestinian security control since the ceasefire.

The Palestinian leader also wants Israel to free more of the 8,000 Palestinians in its jails, including long-serving inmates. The issue is one of the most emotive in Palestinian society, and Israel has released 900 prisoners since the truce was declared.

Abbas aides said he would seek Sharon's agreement for a free passage corridor between Gaza and the West Bank and demand an end to Israeli settlement expansion.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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