Palestinian militants step up attacks as cease-fire grows near

Friday, June 27, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian militants stepped up violence against Israelis on Thursday, dispatching bombers and a teenage gunman even as Palestinian officials and militia leaders discussed the time and place to announce a three-month halt in attacks.

The announcement was expected ahead of the arrival this weekend of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Palestinian officials said.

A truce could help end 33 months of violence, a necessary prelude to a U.S.-backed peace plan aimed at establishing a Palestinian state by 2005. It was negotiated by Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian uprising leader jailed by Israel, and the heads of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups in Damascus.

While Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not commented on the emerging deal directly, he said Thursday that Israel's military might has taught the Palestinians that violence doesn't pay.

"Today, the Palestinians have begun to understand that their interest compels them to stop terror," Sharon told graduating air force pilots. He said the "long arm of the Israeli defense forces can hit terrorists anywhere, anytime."

Sharon's comments came as Israeli troops intercepted four Palestinians carrying two backpacks stuffed with explosives, killing two in a clash and capturing the others.

Earlier, a Palestinian teenager shot dead an Israeli phone company technician near the West Bank before he was seriously wounded by a security guard and captured. A militia linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement claimed responsibility.

Palestinians also fired several mortar shells and homemade rockets at a Jewish settlement in Gaza and an Israeli community bordering the strip. In the West Bank, Israel tore down the house of a Hamas militant who allegedly recruited suicide bombers.

Hamas, Islamic Jihad and a militia linked to Fatah have carried out scores of bombing and shooting attacks against Israelis, killing hundreds of people on buses and public places. On Thursday, the death toll stood at 2,416 on the Palestinian side and 806 on the Israeli side. The uprising passed its 1,000-day mark this week.

Despite the latest violence, Palestinian leaders said the truce first reported by The Associated Press on Wednesday is on track.

"There will not be obstacles," said Jamal Zaqout, a negotiator from the tiny Palestinian political party Fida. "All the Palestinians will abide by this issue," provided the international community presses Israel to "stop their aggression" and "give Palestinians real hope for ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian independent sovereign state."

Negotiators said the truce would halt attacks by the three groups for three months and would apply to the West Bank and Gaza as well as Israel, a key Israeli demand.

In exchange they demanded an end to killings of militants and military strikes, and the release of prisoners; however, these were not made conditions for beginning the truce.

It was agreed on by Barghouti on behalf of Fatah, and by Khaled Mashal of Hamas and Ramadan Shalah of Islamic Jihad in Damascus.

A senior Hamas envoy was en route from Damascus to Cairo on Thursday to deliver the document to Egypt, according to a Palestinian source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Palestinian legislator Kadoura Fares, who first announced agreement had been reached on Wednesday, said if there was quiet for three months, the truce could be extended.

After Arafat predicted an announcement "in a few hours," a senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a declaration would probably be made ahead of Rice's arrival Saturday evening.

Local Hamas leaders initially denied the reports the senior leadership in Damascus had reached a deal, but on Thursday they said a truce appeared near. "There is a great deal of communication between all the parties which has intensified," said Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza.

Israel has said it cannot promise to end all military operations as long as Palestinian security forces don't act against armed groups. It wants the groups disarmed, as required by the "road map" peace plan.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has ruled out using force against the groups for fear of triggering a civil war.

Israel and the United States say a truce could enable the militants to regroup for more attacks. Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert told Israel Radio the Palestinians want to give the militants "a period to recover."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer echoed that on Thursday, telling reporters Bush sought "the dismantlement of terrorism."

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