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Israel kills top Islamic Jihad militant

Israel killed a top Islamic Jihad militant in an airstrike just hours after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he hopes to reach a full peace deal with Israel in less than a year.

Three Gaza airstrikes Thursday killed five Palestinians, including the military leader of the Islamic Jihad there. He was one of three killed when a missile fired from an Israeli aircraft incinerated a jeep in southern Gaza City.

The upended skeleton of the vehicle turned into a battleground between Islamic Jihad and Hamas forces following a dispute over items inside, witnesses said. At least three militants were wounded in a rare open battle between the two Islamic extremist groups. Hamas overran Gaza last month and took power there.

Islamic Jihad is behind most of the daily rocket barrages from Gaza at nearby Israeli towns, and Israel has been pursuing its militants and rocket squads in frequent airstrikes.

Despite the Gaza violence, Abbas said he hopes to reach a full peace deal with Israel within a year. At the same time, aides to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert confirmed he wants to formulate a declaration detailing what a Palestinian state in Gaza and most of the West Bank would look like. However, they hinted that it would leave out the most difficult issues, such as final borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

A key Olmert ally said Friday that Israel should withdraw from most of the West Bank in a deal with the Palestinians.

Haim Ramon, Israel's vice premier and one of the politicians closest to Olmert, told Israel Radio that he supported a withdrawal from "most" of the West Bank, "except for large settlement blocs." He suggested NATO forces could replace Israeli troops in the areas evacuated.

"In my eyes, the occupation of the territories threatens our very existence, our legitimacy and our international standing," Ramon said in the radio interview.

Ramon would not specify the scope of the proposed pullout, but said a plan floated by Olmert before his election in 2006 for a unilateral pullout from 90 percent of the West Bank was no longer a possibility, "certainly not in one step."

Abbas told reporters Thursday that he hoped for "a comprehensive peace with the Israelis within a year or even less than that."

He also told an Israeli newspaper that U.S. President George W. Bush promised him he would push hard to conclude a Mideast agreement before he leaves the White House in January 2009.

A committee of inquiry appointed by Abbas was due to report Friday on the surprising collapse of his forces in Gaza last month, in five days of fighting that ended with a rout and the Hamas takeover of the coastal strip.

Mohammed Dahlan, a leader of the vanquished Fatah forces widely blamed for the defeat, said Thursday he would resign as national security adviser and an Abbas aide, Rafiq Husseini, said the committee would seek to have 60 members of the security forces put on trial for their poor performance.

The Hamas takeover of Gaza has spurred a flurry of diplomatic activity, with the international community lining up behind Abbas and the West Bank-based government of moderates he has installed.

On Thursday the government, headed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, approved a platform that includes acceptance of all previous peace deals with Israel. Hamas' refusal to endorse the peace accords and renounce violence led to an international aid cutoff. The aid has been restored to Fayyad's government.

The backlash against Hamas has also given new momentum to efforts to reach a final peace deal.

Bush is planning an international peace conference in the fall, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is arriving next week for more talks with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is settling in as the international Mideast envoy.

Abbas was quoted Thursday by the Israeli daily Maariv - and the comments were later confirmed by his aides - that Bush and Rice told him they would work hard for a final peace deal within a year.

"I heard this with my own ears from the president himself and from Secretary of State Rice," Abbas told the paper. "They want to reach an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in the next year."

Asked Thursday about the U.S. assurances, Abbas was evasive, but told reporters at his headquarters: "We hope to have a comprehensive peace with the Israelis within a year or even less than that."