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Rice: Gaza border deal 'in sight'

U.S. diplomat extends Mideast visit to help with talks

Condoleezza Rice, left, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met Monday in Ramallah, West Bank.


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RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Israeli and Palestinian leaders neared an agreement on Gaza border crossings Monday, officials said, prompting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to extend her visit to the region.

Rice, after meeting separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, offered hope for a breakthrough.

"If the parties work very hard... there is agreement in sight," Rice said during a news conference with Abbas, who also said a deal may be near. (Watch Rice talk about possible deal on Gaza border -- 1:57)

Palestinians say relaxing Israel's border restrictions would do much to help the region's ailing economy after the pullout of Israeli forces and Jewish settlers earlier this year, while Israel says measures are necessary to protect against terrorism.

Israeli officials had no immediate response.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice has delayed a trip to Asia and would return to Jerusalem Monday after meetings in Amman with Jordanian leaders.

Rice then is expected to continue working with Palestinians and Israelis on discussions centering on the Gaza border crossing at Rafa, McCormack said.

Israeli troops and settlers withdrew from Gaza in September after decades of occupation. Sharon said the pullout and the withdrawal of Israelis from four small areas of the West Bank was part of a plan to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Rice is in the region to mark the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin.

The ease of movement for people and goods in and out of Gaza has been a central issue since Israel's historic pullout. Israel removed Jewish settlers in August, and the military pulled out in September.

Palestinians say they cannot build a viable economy without freedom of movement into Israel, across to the West Bank, and into Egypt on the southern side of Gaza. But Israeli officials point out that terrorists have frequently used the border crossing to Egypt at Rafa to transport bombs and other weapons.

Israeli officials have said the "reality on the ground" -- meaning the extent to which militant groups refrained from attacks -- would determine the restrictions at the borders.

Militants have launched rockets into Israel from Gaza in recent weeks, and Israel responded with aerial attacks on what the military called terrorist infrastructure, but overall the violence has been kept to a relative minimum.

Rice, at the news conference, said she and Abbas had "talked about the need to support the democratic process here in the Palestinian territories, and also the need to condemn and fight terror." She also said the U.S.-backed "road map" for peace in the region obligates the Palestinian Authority "to fight terror and dismantle the infrastructure of terror."

Abbas said he and Rice agreed on several issues involving movement in and out of Gaza, and hopes there will soon be "an opening for our people in Gaza" as well as "the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip."

Discussions center on Palestinians taking control of the Palestinian sides of the borders and the specific precautions they would take.

A plan under discussion would allow Palestinians to assume control for the Palestinian side of the border with Egypt with the possible involvement of members of the European Union. Israel may be allowed to install closed-circuit cameras to help ensure militants do not use the border to import weapons.

Rice had breakfast earlier Monday with Sharon, and later held an appearance with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, where she saluted Rabin and "his dedication to peace."

Shalom, welcoming Rice, said her visit was aimed in part "to try to narrow the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians, and to help us to strengthen our relations with the Arab and the Muslim world."

Israeli forces kill Hamas leader

Israeli security forces killed a leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the West Bank town of Nablus on Monday, Israeli and Palestinian security sources said.

Amged Mahmed Halmi Hinawi, 33, leader of Hamas in Nablus, was shot during Israeli operations to arrest what the Israel Defense Forces called "wanted members of the Hamas infrastructure in the city."

"During the attempt to arrest him, Hinawi broke out of [a] house and opened fire at the arresting force with an AK-47 assault rifle," an IDF statement said. "The force returned fire and killed Hinawi."

Palestinian security sources said a shootout began when Israeli troops surrounded the house, killing Hinawi.

Israeli sources said intelligence information indicated that Hamas in Nablus has been "operating extensively to build explosive laboratories and accumulate explosives and to manufacture explosive devices and belts to carry out terror bombings."

Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization, has been labeled by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. The group's military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, has admitted responsibility for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and Israel's military.

Also Monday, Israeli troops killed a Palestinian gunman and wounded two others near a security fence that divides northern Gaza and Israel, Palestinian security sources and an Israeli military spokesman said.

The three gunmen were advancing toward the fence with rocket-propelled grenades and firearms when Israel Defense Forces opened fire.

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