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Israel returns to Gaza; Rice urges return to talks

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  • NEW: Death of Islamic Jihad military leader confirmed by Israelis and Palestinians
  • Infant girl also reported killed in Khan Yunis
  • Israeli military operation in southern Gaza is over, Israeli source said
  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suspended peace talks, citing offensive
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GAZA CITY (CNN) -- Israeli soldiers returned to southern Gaza on Tuesday hours after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared in the West Bank calling for Israelis and Palestinians promptly to resume peace talks.

Condoleezza Rice, left, talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Tuesday.

Rice was in Jerusalem dining with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as Israeli soldiers were operating outside Khan Yunis, according to Israeli military and Palestinian security sources.

Witnesses Tuesday said they believe Israeli troops surrounded the home of Yusif al-Ismairi -- a leader of a military wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed they killed al-Ismairi, and another militant whose name was not released.

A statement from Islamic Jihad said a "very senior leader" in its military wing was "martyred." No name was given. Initial Palestinian reports said al-Ismairi evaded Israeli troops.

Medical sources are reporting one other fatality -- an infant girl -- and three injuries so far from Tuesday's fighting. The mother of the dead baby was among the seriously wounded, they said.

An Israeli spokeswoman said late Tuesday that an Israeli military operation against militants around Khan Yunis was over. An Israeli security source said the troops, backed by helicopters, are operating against terrorists in the area. Video Watch Israeli-Palestinian clashes »

Israeli forces had pulled out of Gaza on Monday following a five-day operation there to hunt down Palestinian militants firing rockets into Israel.

Speaking in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Rice said Israelis and Palestinians should renew the talks sidetracked by a recent wave of violence "as soon as possible."

At a news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Rice pressed everyone involved in the negotiations "to focus on the process of bringing peace."

"The United States, of course, understands the right of Israel to defend itself, but that Israel needs to be very cognizant of the effects of its operations on innocent people, to spare innocent life and to do everything possible to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza," she said.

Abbas' government suspended talks amid an outbreak of fierce fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza. Abbas said Tuesday that "peace and negotiations are our strategic choice," but he did not say he would push to renew talks.

He instead called on Israel "to halt its aggression so the necessary environment can be created to make negotiations succeed."

Responding to militants firing scores of rockets into Israel, the Israel Defense Forces launched a five-day military operation in northern Gaza last month. More than 100 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers reportedly were killed.

Emphasizing that militants must stop the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel, Rice said, "We are very concerned about the recent violence, the violence that has led to many innocent people being caught in the crossfire."

She added, "We must all must keep our eye on what we are trying to achieve, and what we are trying to achieve is indeed not easy -- and that is to conclude an agreement that can lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state, to conclude that agreement by the end of this year. I still believe that can be done."

Also Tuesday, Rice visited Cairo, Egypt, as part of a brief tour of the Middle East ahead of NATO ministerial meetings later this week in Brussels, Belgium. Included on her agenda was a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before heading for talks with top Israeli and Palestinian officials.

The violence between Israel and the Palestinians, which prompted an emergency U.N. Security Council session Saturday night, resulted in the deaths of at least 110 Palestinians, according to Palestinian medical sources. The IDF said two Israeli soldiers were killed. Video Watch what changed after the Israeli offensive »

The military operation did not halt missile fire from Gaza, which is run by Hamas -- a Palestinian faction that refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist. Abbas' rival Fatah controls the West Bank and has been engaged in the peace process with Israel.

Referring to Abbas' suspension of peace talks, Rice told reporters en route to Cairo that delaying negotiations only benefits "those who don't want to see a two-state solution." Video Watch what Israel's U.N. ambassador expects from Rice's visit »

The Bush administration is trying to revive the Annapolis process, aimed at bringing peace to the Middle East.

During November talks in Annapolis, Maryland, Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed on a framework for future peace talks and said they were optimistic they could seal a long-elusive peace agreement by 2009.

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"The Annapolis process is hardly under way," Rice said. "We are three months into trying to resolve a conflict that has been going on for 50 years. It's going to have its ups and downs.

"There are going to be good days and bad days, and even good weeks and bad weeks. But I'm going to talk to the parties about staying focused on what needs to be done here." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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