Islamists protest against Annapolis talks

Tens of thousands of Palestinian Islamists poured onto the streets in Gaza and the West Bank in protests to reject a key Middle East peace conference in the United States.

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Thousands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements supporters rushed to central Gaza City in front of the parliament for a rally, as the Islamists slammed Arab participation.

The protests left one Palestinian dead.

Israel and the Palestinians pledged to seek a peace deal by the end of 2008 as they relaunched negotiations frozen for seven years at a major US-sponsored conference.

Flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, US President George W Bush read out the pledge to top diplomats and others from 50 countries and organizations meeting in Annapolis, Maryland.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told reporters that groups like the Palestinian Islamist extremist group Hamas are “the Achilles heel” of the new peace process because they could change the agenda with attacks.

Israeli settlers in the West Bank were also anxiously watching the outcome of the talks fearing they could spell the end of their dream of a “Greater Israel.”

But Abbas told his people to “trust in the future, for an independent Palestine is arriving,” while Olmert vowed Israel was prepared to make a “painful compromise” to achieve peace.

“Israel is committed to peace. Israel is prepared for a compromise,” he reiterated later in the NPR interview.

The joint statement from the Palestinians and Israelis was a victory for Bush, only hammered out at the last minute with his direct intervention.

The first meeting of a top-level steering committee is to be held on December 12, and the two sides agreed “to conclude a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

Major differences remain over core issues like the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Abbas urged direct and concrete measures on the ground to show that the world was “committed to the irreversible march towards peace,” he said.

He also called on Israel “to end completely settlements … reopen Palestinian institutions closed in east Jerusalem, dismantle non-authorized settlements, lift all barriers and free the prisoners.”

Olmert seized the opportunity to call for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal as the Jewish state only has full diplomatic relations with three Arab countries: Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania.

But he was rebuffed by Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who told the conference that Riyadh supported talks between Israel and the Palestinians, but for a comprehensive deal Israel first had to withdraw from occupied Arab land.

“Israel, and the world, must understand that peace and the retention of the occupied Arab territories are incompatible and impossible to reconcile or achieve,” he said in a text released to the media.

Saudi Arabia's attendance at the conference was a major coup for the Washington as it marks the first time that Riyadh has sat with Israel to discuss peace.

Saudi Arabia is the architect of an Arab peace initiative offering formal Arab diplomatic ties with Israel in return for an Israeli pullout from all land occupied in the 1967 war.

Syria said it hoped the conference would relaunch comprehensive peace negotiations with Israel.

“Despite all the difficulties and differing opinions on this conference in Annapolis, Syria hopes that our meeting today will constitute a point of departure for a peace process … on all the negotiating issues launched at the Madrid conference,” Fayssal Mekdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister, said in a text released by Syria's embassy in Washington.

The Madrid meeting in 1991 launched negotiations on three aspects of Middle East discord: Israel's conflicts with the Palestinians, Lebanon and with its northern neighbor Syria.

Syria wants the return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967.