Israel and Palestinians begin direct peace talks
An Israeli official says a new round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians has begun.
The two sides held preliminary talks last month in Washington, and have committed to spending nine months discussing the fate of Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements and the borders of a future Palestinian state.
There was little optimism about the outcome of this first official session, which is expected to focus on setting the agenda for future negotiations.
Both sides confirmed that the meeting – cloaked in secrecy – had ended late on Wednesday after several hours.
A senior Israeli official described the talks as "long and serious" but no statement was published.
The negotiations are being led by Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, with help from former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk.
The talks started hours after Israel\’s military said it carried out airstrikes targeting "concealed rocket launchers" in the Gaza Strip. A spokesman blamed the militant group Hamas for "terrorist activity" that comes from the area.
Also before dawn Wednesday, 26 Palestinian prisoners returned to the West Bank and Gaza after being freed from long-time detention in Israel. Jubilant relatives celebrated their return and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hailed them as heroes.
The Israeli government has agreed to free a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners in stages, depending on the progress of the peace talks.
Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem have continued to overshadow the resumption.
The issue halted the last direct talks in September 2010 and Palestinian representatives have accused Israel of trying to sabotage the latest negotiations.
The Palestinians want their state to include land captured by Israel in 1967, but some 500,000 Israelis now live in settlements built on the occupied territories.
The settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.