Palestinian president halts Israel peace talks

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Palestinian president suspended peace talks Sunday as Israel brushed off international criticism and vowed to press ahead with its Gaza airstrikes until militants halt rocket attacks.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said an even broader Gaza operation was possible, aimed at crushing militant rocket squads but also to “weaken the Hamas rule, in the right circumstances, even to bring it down.”

The Palestinian death toll rose by 26, bringing the number killed to 114 since the latest bout of fighting erupted Wednesday, according to Palestinian medical officials and militant groups. At least 54 Palestinians and two Israelis were killed on Saturday, the single deadliest day in more than seven years of fighting.

Gaza militants fired more than 25 rockets at southern Israel on Sunday, the military said, scoring direct hits on houses in the city of Ashkelon and the town of Sderot. Nine Israelis were injured, rescue services said.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said peace talks with Israel had been halted.

“For the time being, the negotiations are suspended because we have so many funerals,” he said. It was unclear when the talks, relaunched last November at a U.S.-hosted summit, would resume.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has wielded little influence in Gaza since the Hamas faction vanquished his forces and took over last June.

The violence clouded an upcoming visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders have set a December target for concluding a final peace deal. But instead of promoting peace, Rice will likely spend her visit this week trying to put out the latest fire.

The Bush administration demanded a halt to the fighting.

“The violence needs to stop and the talks need to resume,” Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in Texas.

The Gaza offensive also drew a chorus of international condemnation. The EU and U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon accused Israel of using excessive force. The U.N. Security Council urged Israelis and Palestinians “to immediately cease all acts of violence.”

Before dawn Sunday, Israeli aircraft sent missiles slamming into the empty offices of Gaza’s Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. No one was hurt, but the attack was seen as a tough message to the Hamas leadership.

After nightfall, Israeli aircraft struck targets around Gaza City’s Shati refugee camp and at Jebaliya, further north, where a militant was killed and four were wounded, Palestinian security officials said.

Before midnight, Israel moved additional ground forces and armored vehicles into northern Gaza, widening its area of operation to about a mile, witnesses and Palestinian security officials said.

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