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Sarkozy Meets Abbas, Mitchell in Push for Durable Gaza Peace

French President Sarkozy met Palestinian President Abbas and new US Mideast envoy Mitchell in Paris on Monday as sporadic violence in Gaza strained an informal ceasefire between Israel and Hamas militants.

Palestinians inspect the damage to a Hamas security complex after it was destroyed in an Israeli air strike

Palestinians inspect the damage to a Hamas security complex after it was destroyed in an Israeli air strike

Sarkozy, who together with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak helped broker a Gaza ceasefire last month, continued efforts to find lasting solutions for Gaza on Monday as he met key diplomatic players in Paris.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who was in Paris on the first stop of his European tour, met Sarkozy late on Monday as he attempted to rally diplomatic support for a national unity government between his Fatah movement and its Hamas rivals ahead of elections to restore Palestinian leadership. Abbas is also pushing for a role in rebuilding the war-shattered Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas.

Sarkozy also held talks with newly appointed US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Qatar's prime minister on Monday, seeking to boost prospects for reviving Israeli-Arab peace talks.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Mitchell, left, seen here with Abbas, is testing the waters in the Middle East

The 75-year-old former US senator said in Israel Friday that Washington was committed to "actively and aggressively" seeking lasting peace in the Middle East but warned there would be further setbacks.

Earlier, Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani too met Sarkozy in Paris. After the talks, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani said he supported a national unity government for the Palestinians and that Arab countries should unite to support a Palestinian solution.

"Arab countries cannot support one Palestinian faction against another," said the prime minister, who is also foreign minister of the Gulf state that brokered a peace accord for Lebanon last year.

"These disagreements complicate Palestinian efforts to succeed in forming a government," he told reporters.

Scattered violence strains truce

The latest diplomatic drive in Paris comes as renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians threatens to shatter the shaky ceasefire in Gaza.

Palestinian residents of Rafah, a town in the south of the Gaza Strip, said that Israeli F-16 warplanes dropped at least four large bombs Sunday night in their efforts to destroy the tunnels, used for smuggling goods and arms into Gaza from Egypt. No injuries were reported in the attacks.

An Egyptian officer guards the Egypt-Rafah border suspected to be used by Hamas to smuggle weapons into Gaza

An Egyptian officer guards the Egypt-Rafah border suspected to be used by Hamas to smuggle weapons into Gaza

Witnesses said earlier that Israeli F-16s also conducted missile attacks on an empty Hamas police post in central Gaza. No injuries were reported in the strikes, though the compound was said to be completely destroyed.

The Israeli airstrike came shortly after around eight Qassam rockets were launched from Gaza on Jewish settlements across the border in Israel. The Israeli government said one civilian and two soldiers were injured in the attacks, news agency AFP reported.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged on Sunday a "disproportionate" military response to continuing rocket attacks that Palestinian militants have described as payback for fresh Israeli attacks.

Livni talks tough

But Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israel would stop short of all-out war.

"It is not our intention to have an Operation Cast Lead 2," he said in an interview with the YNet news Web site. Israel's 22-day offensive in Gaza before a ceasefire last month had been known as "Operation Cast Lead".

"We said there would be a response and there was a response last night," Barak said about Sunday's air strikes.

But on Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni struck a tough note, vowing that each rocket attack would be countered.

"We will continue to strike at Hamas. And our strategic goal cannot be to accept their existence," Livni said in speech. "If a deterrence has not been achieved at the end of the campaign, we will continue to do so until they get the message," she said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni

Livni is hoping to be Israel's next prime minister

"We will respond to every attack, every shooting at Israel, every attack on Israeli sovereignty and continue to take action if there is a need," she added.

Both Barak, head of the center-left Labour Party, and Livni, chairman of the ruling, centrist Kadima party, are in the running for the post of prime minister in Israel's Feb. 10 election. Opinion polls forecast victory for right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud.

Hamas has maintained a hold on power in the Gaza Strip following a 22-day Israeli offensive on the militant group which ended Jan. 18.

Israel and Hamas declared a ceasefire as the Palestinian death toll reached above 1,300, including 700 civilians. Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, were also killed in the offensive. A further 5,500 Palestinians were wounded.

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