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Jimmy Carter plans to meet a fuel-short Hamas

The former president arrived in Israel Sunday as Palestinians in Gaza continued to cope with an Israeli-imposed fuel blockade.

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Still, the shuttle mission comes at a critical juncture. Pressure on Gaza began rising last Wednesday after two Israelis were killed at the Nahal Oz border gasoline terminal by a group of Palestinian militants who made a rare penetration of the military's security cordon around the strip.

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Israel has since refused to renew shipments of petrol, diesel and cooking gas to the Gaza Strip, blaming Hamas for allowing militants to target the last lines of supply to a civilian population under a steadily tightening economic siege.

Energy officials in Gaza warned that the power station that supplies the territory of 1.4 million people with 30 percent of its electricity was teetering on the brink of shutting down. Israeli officials pointed out that Hamas has two days of fuel to power the generator.

"This industrial diesel fuel supply is empty and the generator will stop within hours," said Mahmoud Huzenda, head of an association of Gaza fuel distributors.

The energy crunch has triggered warnings from Hamas of a repeat from earlier this year, when power blackouts gave way to hundreds of thousands of frustrated Gazans surging over the Egyptian border to temporarily break the siege. Having resealed the border, Egypt has warned the Palestinians that it will use force to prevent another border breach.

Meanwhile, Israel has stepped up its military activity inside the Gaza Strip aimed at keeping Palestinian gunmen at a distance from the fence that separates it from Israel.

The offensive, which included Israeli ground troops and tanks, left several children dead over the weekend. On Sunday, a barrage of Palestinian retaliatory mortars landed just a few feet away from the Israeli general who heads the military's southern command.

In Jerusalem, two tracks of diplomacy sought to stem a rising tide of hostility in Gaza.

Though the Olmert-Abbas meeting was a surprise, an Israeli spokesperson for the prime minister said that the summit had been planned for the eve of an upcoming visit to the US by the Palestinian president.

Israel and the Palestinians have been under pressure from both Egypt and the US to avoid a new border breach and to step up momentum for peace talks.

"I hope [the summit] is to avoid a crisis, because if so, it's a good indication," said Gershon Baskin, the codirector of the Israeli Palestinian Center for Research and Information. "It seems logical that if Israel is moving forward then they're want to be coordinating any moves with Abbas."

At the same time as the Olmert-Abbas meeting, Carter was being hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres. Although Mr. Peres has few powers in the largely ceremonial position, his status as Israel's elder statesman makes it likely that he could be used as a quiet channel of communication between the Israeli government and Hamas.

Israel has reportedly been using Egypt for intermittent negotiations with Hamas over a prisoner swap to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was abducted from inside Israel to Gaza in June 2006.

Although Carter ruffled Israeli sensibilities last year after his book came out in which he compared Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to South African apartheid, he is remembered fondly for mediating the peace treaty with Egypt, the Jewish state's first-ever normalization of relations with its neighbors.