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Hamas reportedly foiled an attempt by Palestinian terrorists to kill former US president Jimmy Carter during his visit to the Gaza Strip on Tuesday.
Israeli security sources said they had learned of plans to target Carter and had passed on the information to his security detail in "real time."
According to Palestinian sources, terrorists linked to al-Qaida hid a number of bombs along a road Carter's convoy was scheduled to travel on while in the Strip.
Following Carter's entry to Gaza, five men, some wearing Hamas police uniforms, removed three large black disks and some wire from a sand dune next to a road Carter had used. They then reportedly destroyed the improvised bombs.
A uniformed officer at the scene told The Associated Press the items were explosives.
Security officials said soldiers in a lookout post spotted Hamas forces dismantling explosives. They said they passed on a warning to Carter's security detail.
The Israeli officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified information.
But Islam Shahwan, a spokesman for the Hamas Interior Ministry in Gaza, denied the report of the assassination plans, which appeared first in Ma'ariv.
According to Shahwan, explosives were not discovered near the Erez border crossing and Carter's visit had gone according to plan.
Carter later said that he did not believe an assassination attempt had occurred.
In speaking with reporters in Tel Aviv in the evening, Carter said he was not aware that anything was going on and that his staff and drivers were not aware that they had been rerouted.
Last July, Quartet envoy Tony Blair canceled a planned trip to Gaza after receiving warnings from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) that terrorists planned to target his convoy.
Carter's one-day Gaza visit came at the end of a swing though Lebanon, Syria and Israel, during which he encouraged officials in all countries to move toward a negotiated end to the Middle East conflict.
Carter - who helped broker the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt - serves a unique, though unofficial, role in peacemaking efforts in the region.
Although traveling as a "private citizen" and not as a representative of the US government, Carter said he would report to Obama administration officials after returning to the United States.
Before heading into Gaza, he met for the second time during his visit with the Noam Schalit, the father of kidnapped soldier Gilad, who has been held by Hamas in Gaza for close to three years.
While in Gaza, Carter passed to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh a letter he received Friday from Schalit's parents and asked that it be given to Gilad. Last time Carter was in the region, in April 2008, he was able to persuade Hamas to allow Gilad to send a letter to his family, which arrived in June 2008.
On Tuesday, Carter told reporters in Tel Aviv that Hamas accepted the letter, and with regard to Gilad, said, "My conviction at this moment is that he is alive and well."
Haniyeh, according to his aides, said Hamas wanted to resolve the Schalit case, and welcomed Carter's mediation efforts in this regard. Haniyeh was quoted as saying that Hamas supported achieving a dignified solution to the Schalit case on a "human and political basis."
Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas's military wing, Izzadin Kassam, said in a statement Hamas would "study the possibility of delivering the letter."
"Everything is subject to evaluation on both a security and decision-making level."
Carter said he urged Hamas to support efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adding, "They have made statements and taken actions that suggest they are ready to join the peace process."
Haniyeh told Carter he would support any plan that aimed to fulfill the aspirations of the Palestinians, preserve their rights and lead to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state on all the territories that were occupied by Israel in 1967.
"We are pushing toward the dream of having our independent state with Jerusalem as its capital," Haniyeh said, standing beside Carter at a press conference.
During his meeting with Carter, Haniyeh urged the former president to pressure Israel to lift the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip and reopen the border crossings into the area.
Carter spoke against Israel's two-year closure of the passages into Gaza for all but humanitarian aid, a policy that has been in place since Hamas overthrew Fatah and took sole control of the area in June 2007.
But he also urged Hamas to accept the demands of the international community to cease violence, recognize Israel, and accept past agreements made by the PLO with it.
He also urged the international community to do more to help the Palestinians in Gaza.
"Tragically, the international community too often ignores the cries for help and the citizens of Palestine are treated more like animals than like human beings," Carter said in a speech to graduates of a UN school in Gaza.
He said earlier in the day that he almost cried when he saw the wreckage of the American International School in Beit Lahiya, which was destroyed by Israel during its January military incursion in Gaza, and felt guilty because Israel used US-made war planes to bomb the campus.
"I have to hold back tears when I see the deliberate destruction that has been wracked against your people," he told Palestinians as he visited the school's ruins in the northern Gaza town.
The IDF said it targeted the campus because Palestinians were using the site to fire rockets at Israel's southern towns and cities.
"I feel partially responsible for this, as must all Americans and Israelis," Carter said, saying that the school was "deliberately destroyed by bombs from F-16s made in my country."
He said in the Tel Aviv press conference that one of his trip's main goals was to persuade Hamas to accept the West's three conditions for engaging the group.
He said he was waiting for Hamas to determine what it could agree to.
"When they make their decision on the exact language, they'll be back in touch with me, and I'll relay that commitment to the government officials in my country," Carter said.
He also called for an end to the rockets attacks on Israel by Gazan gunmen.
"All this violence must stop in order for me and others to have a chance to help you find peace," he said.
Khaled Abu Toameh, Tovah Lazaroff, Bloomberg and AP contributed to this report.
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