Forces loyal to Palestinian Pres-ident Mahmoud Abbas have received an arms shipment from Egypt with Israeli approval, part of Israel's effort to strengthen the moderate leader in his power struggle with the militant Islamic Hamas.
Trying to avoid the embarrassment of apparent cooperation with Israel, an Abbas aide denied on Thursday that the deal took place -- but then a box of weapons fell off a truck.
Israel has been trying to reinforce Abbas' standing among his people. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he is a partner for negotiations -- unlike Hamas, which rejects the existence of Israel and refuses to renounce violence. This month 17 people have been killed in clashes between the rival forces.
Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official, told Israel Radio the military assistance was rendered to reinforce the "forces of peace" against the "forces of darkness" threatening the future of the Middle East, a reference to Islamic extremists.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Abbas, issued a statement denying any arms deal. However, at midday on Thursday, witnesses saw a truck belonging to the pro-Fatah National Security force carrying what appeared to be sealed boxes of weapons.
When the truck attempted to make a quick detour, one box fell onto the ground, scattering a pile of automatic guns on the road, the witnesses said. Security men in the truck quickly got out and collected the weapons.
Israel approved the transfer of 2,000 automatic rifles, 20,000 ammunition clips and 2 million bullets on Wednesday, Israeli officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the shipment had not been officially confirmed by Israel, the Palestinians or Egypt.
Also on Thursday, Olmert slightly softened his tone concerning peace overtures from Syria, saying he is open to "any murmur of peace" from Israel's enemies.
"If our enemies genuinely want peace, they will find in us a fair partner, determined to establish relations of peace, friendship and reciprocity," he said.
Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, played down the comments.
"He has constantly said that if we see anything different, a glimpse of change, then that would be interesting and could make a difference," she said, but Syria continues to shelter Palestinian extremist groups.
In Jerusalem, US Senator Arlen Specter, who came to Israel after talks in Syria with President Bashar Assad, said the Syrian leader asked him to deliver a message.
"Syria is very interested in peace negotiations with Israel," he said.
But when pressed about whether there were preconditions, Specter told Channel 10 TV, "it got to be a little fuzzy."
He said Israel would have to judge whether the offer was serious.
In an interview published on Thursday in the Haaretz daily, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Syria wanted peace talks as a way of ending its international isolation.
"We want peace. They want negotiations," she said. "Syria knows exactly what it has to do to become part of the international community, but it is doing exactly the opposite."
Meanwhile, in related news, one of the Palestinian militant groups holding a captured Israeli soldier on Thursday said progress has been made in efforts to free the serviceman as part of a prisoner swap with Israel.
Abu Mujahed, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), said Egyptian mediators are trying to finalize a deal.
"We received positive signals from our Egyptian brothers, who are acting on this matter. Everything depends on the Israelis," he said.
He declined to say when a prisoner swap might take place.
The PRC is one of three militant groups that tunneled into Israel and captured Corporal Gilad Shalit in a June 25 raid near the Gaza Strip. Shalit has not been seen since then, but Egypt's foreign minister, on a visit to Israel on Wednesday, said Egypt knows Shalit is still alive.
The militants have demanded the release of large numbers of prisoners held by Israel in exchange for Shalit's freedom. There was no immediate Israeli reaction.
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