The exiled Hamas political chief on Saturday described rockets attacks on Israel this week as "self defense" and claimed they were justified, while the camp of the Palestinian Authority chairman urged the preservation of the five month-long truce. The comments came as Hamas's Khaled Mashaal and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas were meeting for a second day in the Egyptian capital, Cairo. Their talks, which started Friday, were the first since their blocs in March formed a coalition government. The meetings followed an escalation in Palestinian-Israeli tensions, with a barrage of rockets fired by Hamas earlier in the week. Egyptian officials were concerned the attacks could sabotage their mediation efforts.
Abbas and Mashaal meet in Egypt
"It's the Palestinians' right to defend themselves," Mashaal said, adding the attacks came in revenge for the killings of nine Hamas Palestinians by Israel. "These are violations that needed a retaliation."
But Abbas's aide, Nabil Abu Rudeina, who was also in Cairo, said "everybody should abide by" the truce because it is "for the sake of the Palestinian people."
Mashaal also blamed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for allegedly hindering Egyptian mediations to secure the release of the abducted soldier Gilad Schalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.
Hamas has said Schalit would be released only in return for Palestinians jailed in Israeli prisons.
Egypt has tried to negotiate Schalit's release for months and has blamed Hamas for failing to conclude the deal. Israeli Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who visited Cairo in October, said his government had accepted Egypt's conditions for a prisoner swap and blamed Mashaal for the failure to conclude the deal.
But Mashaal said in Cairo that the Israeli premier is "personally behind the delay in the release of the Israeli soldier."
"There were big hopes, but Olmert is responsible for everything," he said without elaborating.
The two Palestinian leaders were also meeting Egyptian officials - Mashaal met with Arab League Chief Amr Moussa, while Abbas held talks with President Hosni Mubarak.
Abu Rudeina told The Associated Press that Abbas urged Hamas to "speed up the prisoners' swap."
Abbas has just ended a seven-nation tour to European Union countries as part of his latest attempt to persuade Europe to end the aid cutoff and fully resume dealings with Palestinian government.
Direct financial aid to the Palestinian Authority was frozen after Hamas swept to power in January 2006 elections; aid has continued to reach Palestinians through non-governmental organizations and other means of bypassing the government.
The new Palestinian government says it needs â‚¬1 billion (US$1.33 billion) in international support "to get back on its feet." But the EU, which has been a major donor, says Hamas must recognize Israel first and commit to past agreements before aid is fully restored.
In Cairo, Abbas voiced optimism that the embargo would slowly ease.
"There is a possibility of the lifting of the siege on the Palestinian people, it will come gradually," Abbas told reporters in Cairo. "We didn't feel that there are problems with the European countries, either in terms of the lifting of the financial siege or the political siege."
Mashaal for his part criticized Arab countries as being "very slow" and urged them to take the "first step in lifting the siege."
"The Europeans and others will follow and lift the siege, whereas the United States and Israel will be the only ones" who won't, he added.
The two Palestinian leaders also discussed the restructuring of the Palestinian Liberation Organization - the umbrella group solely authorized to conduct negotiations with Israel.
Since the coalition government was approved, Hamas has been pressing to acquire the post of deputy chairman of the PLO, apparently jostling for more influence in talks with Israel.
The two camps agreed in Cairo that Fatah and Hamas representatives will meet next week in Damascus for further talks on PLO's restructuring, which Abbas described as "going forward."