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Palestinians divided over U.S. security plan

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By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA, May 6 (Reuters) - Palestinian leaders failed to bridge differences on Sunday over a U.S. plan that aims to bolster prospects for renewed peace talks with Israel by setting dates for both sides to take confidence-building steps.

The plan calls for a "timeline" for so-called "benchmark" steps including Palestinian forces cracking down on rocket attacks and Israel easing restrictions for Palestinians.

Hamas, which leads a Palestinian unity government, has flatly rejected the plan, under which President Mahmoud Abbas would start deploying his Fatah-dominated forces by mid-June to halt rocket fire and smuggling by Gaza militants.

Abbas's aides said he was willing to work with the U.S. plan, albeit with amendments. "We want it to be implemented. We hope to see the Israelis implement it," Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Abbas, told Reuters.

The different positions again expose the tensions between Abbas' secular Fatah faction and ruling Hamas Islamists, less than two months after they formed their unity government in a bid to end infighting.

Abbas failed in talks with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas in Gaza to persuade Hamas to support the U.S. timeline or reach agreement on a division of security responsibilities, an official close to the talks told Reuters.

The two were to meet again on Monday, when the Palestinian cabinet would also take up the issue, officials said.

Hamas has shown no flexibility towards a plan that it sees as part of an American effort to strengthen Abbas's forces. "The American plan is rejected and we will work to make it fail by any means," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Baroum.

DETERIORATING SECURITY

Aides in Haniyeh's office said his priorities in the talks with Abbas were to address a "deteriorating internal security situation" and try to meet his interior minister's demands for the cooperation of security chiefs loyal to Abbas.

After the two-hour meeting, Ahmed Youssef, Haniyeh's political adviser, denounced the U.S. plan to Reuters as "grave and humiliating," saying it offered little more than "some security arrangements to satisfy Israel while giving the Palestinians very little".

Abbas has also been trying to extend a shaky Gaza ceasefire and stop rocket attacks against Israel by Palestinian factions in a bid to start serious peace talks.

Israel, citing concerns about violence, has also had a mixed reaction to the U.S. plan. Israeli officials said a U.S. demand that Israel allow Palestinian bus convoys to travel between Gaza and the occupied West Bank by July 1 was a particular problem.

An aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the government could not commit itself to meeting some of the so-called "benchmarks" for security reasons, but suggested the ideas would be further explored.

"It's a positive initiative. We'll study it in depth," the aide said.

Though the U.S. plan includes set dates for both sides to take specific actions, the U.S. State Department said on Friday these did not constitute "fixed deadlines."

An Israeli woman was injured by a rocket fired from Gaza on Sunday. Islamic Jihad militants claimed responsibility.

The group often shoots rockets at Israel, having rejected a ceasefire from November, citing Israel's continued raids against its gunmen in the West Bank.

Israel said in response it "will not relent" in its demands for the Palestinians to halt such attacks. (Additional reporting by Wafa Amr in Ramallah)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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