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Despite Killings, Israelis, Palestinians Agree to Talks

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers killed Hussam Hamdan, a senior member of the militant group Hamas. Senior Hamas leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi vowed revenge for Hamdan’s killing, and called for the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“I demand and urge the military apparatus of Hamas to target Sharon personally and to target his house and his son,” Rantissi told Reuters.

In the West Bank city of Tulkarm, Israeli forces killed four militants and wounded three others in a gun battle. According to Palestinian residents, one of those killed was a local militant leader.

In Bethlehem, Israeli troops arrested an alleged local leader of the Islamic militant group Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. The Israeli military describes the Palestinian as an explosives expert accused of sending several suicide bombers to Israel.

Also Wednesday, a Palestinian policeman was killed when Israeli troops entered a Palestinian-ruled area of northern Gaza in a search for militants.

Despite the deaths, the Palestinian cabinet tentatively approved Israel’s “Gaza First” proposal, which would ease restrictions and loosen the Israeli military hold on occupied areas in the West Bank and Gaza. The Gaza Strip area would be used as a test area for the plan, which would be implemented in other areas if deemed successful.

“There is preliminary approval,” Planning Minister Nabil Sha’ath told reporters following the cabinet meeting in Ramallah, which Yasser Arafat attended.

The two sides will hold talks before reaching definite agreement on the plan, which would call for an Israeli withdrawal from some Palestinian-controlled areas if the Palestinian Authority cracks down on extremists.

Meanwhile, three Palestinian cabinet ministers headed to Washington for talks with Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. The meetings, scheduled for later this week, are the first high-level talks in several months.

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