Islamic militants OK three-month truce with Israel

Thursday, June 26, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Islamic militant groups signed an agreement to halt attacks on Israelis for three months, a senior official of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction said Wednesday -- a possible breakthrough for the U.S.-backed peace plan.

However, an official of the largest militant group, Hamas, said the deal was not final.

Shortly after word of the cease-fire, Israel sent helicopters to carry out an airstrike against what it said was a squad of Hamas militants preparing to carry out a rocket attack. Palestinian officials said a man and a woman were killed and 17 Palestinians were wounded.

President Bush reacted skeptically to the reports of a cease-fire.

"I'll believe it when I see it," Bush said at a Washington news conference with European leaders. "The true test for Hamas and terrorist organizations is the complete dismantlement of their terrorist networks, their capacity to blow up the peace process."

Israel said an internal Palestinian deal was of no consequence, and that the Palestinians would be judged on their actions, including whether they can halt bombings and shootings.

"It can be a positive step only if it will lead to a complete and total cessation of all terrorist activities without a time limit," Israel's U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman told The Associated Press. "Only when that happens and the terrorist infrastructure is completely dismantled will the way be paved for a true and hopefully successfully peace process."

Fatah, whose own military wing has also carried out attacks, joined Hamas and the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad in signing the agreement. Smaller armed groups have not yet signed on.

Kadoura Fares, speaking on behalf of Fatah, said that in recent weeks there have been intensive contacts among Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is jailed in Israel, and Khaled Mashal of Hamas and Ramadan Shalah of Islamic Jihad, who are in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

The military wings of all three groups have carried out bombing and shooting attacks against Israelis during 33 months of fighting, killing hundreds.

"The Palestinian dialogue has resulted in a cease-fire agreement for a period of three months," Fares said, adding that a formal statement about a cease-fire would be made later Wednesday.

Demands on Isreal

"We in the Fatah movement demand that the Israeli government respond to this initiative with a comprehensive halting of aggression against the Palestinian people," Fares said. "We consider this as a step to ending occupation and we salute the spirit of responsibility in the Hamas and Islamic Jihad."

A Palestinian source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a document outlining the truce terms was signed by Mashal, Shalah, and Barghouti.

In it, the militant groups agree to a moratorium on attacks for three months, the source said; in exchange they demand Israel end targeted killings of militants and military incursions, and call for the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel -- but do not set any deadline or timeframe for this.

The cease-fire applies to settlers and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza as well as to Israel, a key Israeli demand, the source said.

In Gaza, local Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi said the deal was not final. "In the coming days we will have an answer, and ... Israeli terrorist actions will be taken into account when we decide," he said, apparently referring to the Israeli airstrike Wednesday in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis.

Another Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, said that "this is all lies," when asked about the report of a truce deal.

But Mohammed al-Hindi, the top Islamic Jihad leader in the Gaza Strip, confirmed Hamas agreed to a three-month truce and was trying to arrange a joint declaration with his group.

Mediators were currently in the process of informing Palestinian and Egyptian officials of the agreement.

Egypt has played a major role in helping Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas persuade the militants to end attacks and give a chance to the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

The Palestinian source said that an official announcement on a cease-fire would probably be made in the coming days, possibly from Cairo.

Israeli military intelligence officials have said they expect such an agreement, and Palestinian officials and militant leaders have suggested it is imminent.

An end to the violence would presumably clear the way for implementation of the road map, launched June 4 by President Bush at a Mideast summit.

In the plan's first phase, the Palestinian Authority is supposed to dismantle terror groups, while Israel is supposed to freeze Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza, dismantle scores of illegal outposts and gradually withdraw troops from autonomous Palestinian territories.

To date, both sides have approached implementation haltingly: Israel has taken down just a handful of outposts, while the Palestinians insist on using only persuasion to get the militants to stop attacks on Israelis. Violence has plagued the efforts to arrange a cease-fire.

Israel fears a cease-fire will be used by the militants to regroup for more attacks, especially as it is being called a "hudna" in Arabic -- an Islamic term widely understood as referring to a temporary arrangement. It says a truce must be only the first step in a Palestinian crackdown on the militants.

Barghouti, a senior figure in Arafat's Fatah faction, played a major role in drafting the document from his jail cell with knowledge of the Israeli authorities, who allowed go-betweens to enter and leave as well as pass him documents. In so doing, he helped Abbas, who had been trying for weeks to persuade the militants to lay down their arms.

Abbas has promised the militants will eventually be disarmed, but he also says he will not use force against them, fearing a Palestinian civil war.

Hamas leaders in Gaza have chafed at laying down their arms. Still, the group is coming under enormous pressure from all sides, including the Arab world, the United States and Europe. There are efforts to dry up its funding, and Israel has made clear it will target its leaders in military strikes if attacks go on.

Since violence erupted in September 2000, dozens of Palestinian suicide bombers have crossed the largely unmarked line between Israel and the West Bank, blowing themselves up in nearby Israeli cities and killing hundreds.

In all, the fighting has killed more than 2,400 people on the Palestinian side and more than 800 people on the Israeli side.

Violence continued Wednesday.

Hamas said two of its members fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli military vehicle in northern Gaza. That set off a firefight in which the two militants were killed. An Israeli soldier was wounded, the military said.

The clash occurred in the area of Beit Hanoun, which Israeli forces have controlled for several weeks in an effort to prevent Palestinians from firing homemade rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, just beyond the fence surrounding the seaside strip.

Also Wednesday, Israeli police said they captured two Palestinians en route to setting off explosives in an Israeli city.

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