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Israel, Palestinians to resume talks

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) — Israel and the Palestinians were to resume security talks for the first time in a month on Sunday, despite Palestinian anger at an Israeli crackdown and Israeli fury over a ship it said was arming Palestinians.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana was due to arrive in the region on Sunday, to meet with officials from the two sides and build on U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni's efforts to forge a ceasefire after 15 months of violence.

Zinni said told reporters he was "hopeful" and "encouraged" that he might be able to steer the two sides towards peace on Saturday after talks with Palestinian cabinet member Saeb Erekat in Jericho on Saturday.

Zinni is on his second visit to the region after a first trip was cut short last month after a surge in violence.

"I think that it's going to take cooperation from both sides and a deep commitment to get the meaningful ceasefire we need so we can get this process in order," he said.

He said the two sides would resume trilateral security talks — with Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. representatives — on Sunday that were broken off in December.

Solana was to meet with Israeli officials and Arafat before traveling to Egypt and Jordan on Tuesday.

Weapons ship

The seizure of a ship on Thursday that Israel was said was loaded with rockets, mines, missiles and other weapons for the Palestinians fuelled tensions, after two weeks of relative calm. Israel said it would publicly unveil the arsenal on Sunday.

Israel said the vessel was owned by the Palestinian Authority, manned by its police and contained 50 tonnes of mostly Iranian-supplied arms for use against its citizens.

Palestinian officials denied any link to the ship and said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was trying to sabotage Zinni's trip. They ordered an investigation.

Tehran denied any Iranian connection to the ship or military links to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

Israel said the arms haul underlined its charge that Arafat had not done enough to crack down on terror.

During the surge in violence in December, Israel imposed a travel ban on Arafat until he arrested those blamed for killing an Israeli cabinet member in October.

The Palestinians say they are doing everything they can to curb violence and view Israeli blockades in their territories and restrictions on travel as collective punishment that is crippling their economy.

The ban prevented Arafat from attending Western rite Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem on December 24.

On Sunday, Khairi al-Oridi, Palestinian ambassador to Moscow, said a team of 14 members of Russia's parliament planned to help the Palestinian leader get to the city revered as the site of Jesus' birth for an Orthodox Christmas mass despite the Israeli ban.

"They will negotiate with the Israeli government and put pressure on it for Arafat to be allowed to go," he said.

Common US, EU approach

Frustrated by a surge in violence late last year, the EU and Washington agreed to a common approach to solve the crisis in which least 800 Palestinians and 234 Israelis have died since a Palestinian uprising began after peace talks crumbled.

Avi Pazner, a senior government spokesman, told Reuters the Palestinian Authority still had to "leave behind terror" and that "if Solana could convey this view to Arafat it would be very, very helpful."

He cautioned against expecting too much after a history of failure and lack of "serious (Palestinian) effort to implement a full ceasefire."

Palestinians, who have seized dozens of militants and shut their offices and bomb factories, say Israel's refusal to permit peace talks unless there are seven days of complete calm is almost impossible to meet and an obstacle to peace.

Violence has dropped significantly since Arafat called for an end to attacks on Israelis in mid-December and clamped down on groups behind a wave of suicide bombings and other attacks.

Palestinian security sources said they arrested six Islamic Jihad militants in the West Bank city of Jenin on Friday, including three on Israel's most-wanted list. Israel has dismissed past arrests as a sham.