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Peace talks to proceed despite Jerusalem attack

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JERUSALEM — Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will proceed within days despite a shooting attack that killed eight students at a Jewish seminary, Israeli officials said Saturday.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity since there has been no official announcement regarding the talks. The comments came hours after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for Israel not to abandon peace efforts after a recent escalation of violence.

The attack in Jerusalem on Thursday and the continuing violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel had threatened to stall the U.S.-backed talks that aim for a peace deal by the end of the year.

Abbas had briefly called off the talks after the recent killing of more than 120 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, in Israeli military operations in Gaza. The Israeli incursion was in response to rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled territory.

But on Saturday, Abbas urged a continuation of the negotiations.

"Despite all the circumstances we're living through and all the attacks we're experiencing, we insist on peace. There is no other path," Abbas said in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in his first response to the Jerusalem shooting attack, called the attack "horrible" and compared it to the Gaza militants' rocket attacks.

"The perpetrators of both intend to make our lives unbearable," he said Saturday. "This won't happen."

He did not speak about the peace talks with the Palestinians. But the Israeli officials on Saturday reiterated previous comments that the attack would not bring a halt to the talks, which they would continue sometime in the coming week, which begins Sunday.

Israel and Abbas' West Bank government renewed negotiations in December after a meeting hosted by President Bush in Annapolis, Md.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that Israel "remains committed to the Annapolis framework."

Israel and the Palestinians were slated to resume talks Thursday in a meeting with a U.S. general assigned to monitor progress, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Saturday. Regev said the meeting was not definite.

The Israeli officials said the talks would be held "on several levels."

Abbas also voiced support Saturday for Egyptian efforts backed by the United States to mediate a truce between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic rival to Abbas' Fatah government that wrested control of the Gaza Strip in June.

Hamas is demanding that Israel stop military operations in the Gaza Strip and open crossings with the territory, which have largely been closed since the Hamas takeover. Israel insists that Hamas stop the rocket fire.

"So long as there is an assault, there will be resistance," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza.

Regev declined to discuss the Egyptian mediation efforts. But in a sign that Israel could be considering a truce, Israel Radio reported that Amos Gilad, a senior Defense Ministry official, would head to Egypt on Sunday to discuss Gaza. Israeli defense officials were not immediately available to confirm the report.

Those killed in the Jerusalem attack were students at a Jewish seminary, one 26 years old and the others between the ages of 15 and 19.

Israeli police have arrested eight people in connection to the attack, they said Saturday. The gunman did not meet the typical profile of Palestinian attackers, police said.

"He is not known to the security forces," Jerusalem police commander Aharon Franco told Channel Two TV. "He was a normal man, who worked as a driver, who was going to wed soon."

Relatives of the man, Alaa Abu Dheim, said he had been distraught over the violence in Gaza.

Hamas radio had said Friday the militant group took responsibility, but later retracted the report. A previously unknown, Lebanese-based group, the "Martyrs of Imad Mughniyeh" — after a senior Hezbollah commander killed in Syria last month — claimed responsibility, the Al-Manar satellite TV station reported. But the claim could not be independently confirmed. Hezbollah has blamed Israel for Mughniyeh's assassination and vowed revenge.

About 208,000 Palestinians live in east Jerusalem. The gunman, like many Palestinians in the sector of the city Israel captured in 1967 and later annexed, had an Israeli ID allowing him freedom of movement within Israel.

Israeli officials, including a Cabinet minister, have called since the attack for restrictions to be imposed on Palestinians in east Jerusalem. But such measures would be virtually impossible to enact since the city's Arab and Jewish neighborhoods are not separated by any barrier.

Israel indefinitely closed the West Bank over the weekend, barring most Palestinians from entering Israel.