A senior PA official in Ramallah told the Jerusalem Post on Saturday that the Palestinian negotiating team headed by former PA prime minister Ahmed Qurei had been holding secret talks with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and other government officials in the past few weeks. A spokesperson from Livni's office said that he was "not allowed to respond to anything going on in the [negotiating] room." "The main progress has been achieved during the secret talks, particularly on the issue of Jerusalem. Today we can say that Israel is prepared to withdraw from almost all the Arab neighborhoods and villages in Jerusalem. Israel is prepared to redivide Jerusalem and this is a positive development," the Ramallah official said. "The negotiations are moving too slowly," he said. "There are still too many difficulties, although one can say that some progress has been achieved." US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to return to the region soon in yet another attempt to prevent the collapse of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, The official said the PA was seeking greater US involvement in the current negotiations with Israel, especially with regards to those that are being conducted secretly. The PA is worried that a massive Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip would sabotage the negotiations and has appealed to the US to intervene with Israel on this matter, another PA official said. He expressed fear that such an operation would boost Hamas's standing and turn the Palestinian public against the PA leadership in Ramallah. "Hamas wants to be in the position of the victim," the official noted. "They want to drag Israel into the Gaza Strip so that they can score points on the Arab and Islamic street. An Israeli invasion will serve their interests." The official said the US administration had promised to pressure Israel to refrain from carrying out a massive attack in the Gaza Strip. He said the PA believed that Israel's policy of "collective punishment" also served Hamas's interests because it drove more Palestinians into their open arms. "When you deprive a Palestinian from gas and electricity, he will hate Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and not Hamas," he added. Assistant US Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welsh, who met on Saturday separately with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Qurei, reiterated Washington's commitment to advancing the peace process. Abbas briefed the US official on his latest initiative for a cease-fire between the Palestinians and Israel. He also reiterated his readiness to assume control over the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Qurei briefed Welsh on the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He urged Washington to exert pressure on Israel to fulfill its commitments in line with the first phase of the road map. These commitments, he added, included a cessation of settlement construction, an IDF withdrawal to pre-September 28, 2000 positions, reopening all closed PLO institutions in Jerusalem, the removal of illegal outposts and IDF checkpoints and the release of Palestinian prisoners. Qurei said he was convinced that an agreement could be reached with Israel before the end of this year "provided that there were good intentions and that the international community was actively involved in pushing the peace process forward." Jpost.com contributed to this report.