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Palestinian efforts to reach unity deal may face delay

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Palestinian negotiators said yesterday that a hoped-for deal this week on a unity government could be delayed by difficulties in working out a prisoner swap with Israel.

The Palestinian president and premier, heading the rival Fatah and Hamas factions, have been trying to wrap up the deal in an effort to end the economic sanctions and pave the way for a resumption of long-frozen talks with Israel. The negotiations have been dragging on for months.

Israel and Western donor nations imposed the sanctions on the Palestinian government after Hamas won legislative elections earlier this year. Despite widespread hardship caused by the sanctions, Hamas has rejected international calls to renounce violence, recognize Israel, or accept past peace agreements.

Late yesterday, Israeli aircraft attacked three targets in Gaza, destroying the home of a Hamas militant and an Islamic charity affiliated with Hamas. There were no reports of casualties, but there was heavy damage to the charity building, which housed a mosque, library, and health clinic. The army said it had targeted Hamas offices and meeting places.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops clashed yesterday with a group of 200 rioters, killing three people and wounding more than 30 others, two critically, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials. The violence erupted after Israeli troops entered the town of Qalqilya to arrest a wanted militant.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, a moderate, has been pushing Hamas to enter a coalition with Fatah in hopes of ending the sanctions. He hopes the government will endorse a softer position on Israel that will enable him to resume peace talks.

The idea is to replace the Cabinet of Hamas ministers with independents linked to, but not members of, the two factions. Abbas and his Palestine Liberation Organization would be charged with handling peace negotiations, while the Cabinet would deal with the daily affairs of the Palestinian areas.

A senior Palestinian negotiator said the current Hamas-led Cabinet would resign within three days to make way for a new unity government.

The negotiator, who took part in Thursday's meeting with Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was not public.

Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas-led government, said a deal might take a bit longer to reach, but expressed optimism the sides would resolve their differences.

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