Israel agrees to pull back troops; militant groups accept cease

Saturday, June 28, 2003

JERUSALEM -- In a boost to U.S.-backed peace efforts, Israel agreed on terms for a troop pullbacks from the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem after Palestinian militants confirmed Friday that they will halt attacks on Israelis for three months.

The progress in negotiations -- which sources said included a commitment by Israel to halt targeted killings of militants -- came despite continued violence. A raid by Israeli commandos left four Palestinians and an Israeli soldier dead in the Gaza Strip.

"We are pleased with the progress we have seen," Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington.

The "road map" peace plan, the latest bid to end the decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, has been on shaky ground because of escalating violence ever since President Bush launched it on June 4.

U.S. official due today

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was expected in the region today for talks with the Palestinian and Israeli prime ministers about the plan, which outlines steps toward ending violence and establishing a Palestinian state by 2005.

Her visit would coincide with an expected formal announcement by militant groups Sunday that they are ending attacks. The announcement would be a turning point in the 33 months of violence -- although Israel has been skeptical of the truce idea, and it remains to be seen whether all militants will comply.

Gaza militants said Friday that leaders of the two Islamic militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, had accepted a temporary cease-fire negotiated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, providing first confirmation by the militants that such a deal has been reached.

"The trilateral document is now ready," a senior militia leader told The Associated Press on condition that neither he nor his group be identified.

Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin said his group has informed Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas of its views, but stopped short of declaring acceptance.

The truce document, first reported by AP on Wednesday, applies to settlers and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza in addition to civilians in Israel, fulfilling a key Israeli demand.

In exchange, the Palestinian groups asked Israel to suspend targeted killings of militants and release prisoners. But these demands were not conditions for beginning the truce.

"I believe that it will be a good document," said Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi. "It will serve the interest of the Palestinian people and will preserve Palestinian unity and the option of resistance."

The deal on an Israeli troop withdrawal from the entire Gaza Strip as well as the West Bank town of Bethlehem was another important sign that the parties were making headway in implementing the road map, which calls for Israeli forces to gradually return to positions they held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000.

That agreement was reached in talks Friday between Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan and Israeli Gen. Amos Gilad.

Israeli troops are expected to start pulling back Monday or Tuesday, with the Palestinian Authority taking over security in the vacated areas, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

Israeli security officials have promised to halt targeted killings and other incursions in areas under Palestinian security control, they said.

In return, the Palestinians agreed to act against what Israel calls "ticking bombs" -- a reference to assailants on their way to attack Israelis, and the people who send them.

"The Palestinian security apparatus is ready to take on this huge responsibility," Dahlan said.

U.S. officials in Israel to monitor implementation of the road map will oversee the withdrawal.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the terms of the withdrawal had been deadlocked for several weeks, in part over who would control the main north-south road in Gaza.

Under Friday's deal, the road will remain open 24 hours a day and the Rafah crossing into Gaza will be open 12 hours a day, the Palestinians said.

In a sign the emerging truce remained on track Friday, Hamas leaders offered relatively mild reactions to the Gaza raid, a two-hour firefight set off by Israeli soldiers who surrounded two homes in a hunt for a Hamas bombmaker.

Even the military wing of Hamas, which has been behind most of the nearly 100 suicide bombings that have killed 371 people in the past 33 months, skipped the usual threats of more attacks against Israel.

The Syrian-based leaders of the two main militant groups, Khaled Mashal of Hamas and Ramadan Shalah of Islamic Jihad, agreed to the truce this week, according to a Fatah legislator involved in the negotiations. A formal announcement has been delayed while the main parties bring 10 smaller factions on board and make final touches to the document.

The delays also appeared related to concerns about the location and timing of the announcement; some expected it might be made in Cairo as a gesture toward Egypt, which has been pressing for the truce.

Israel and the United States have given the cease-fire a lukewarm welcome, preferring instead to see militant groups dismantled, as the road map requires.

En route to the Middle East, Rice called on the European Union to outlaw the political wing of Hamas to dry up the flow of donations to the group.

There seemed to be a change in tone among Israeli officials Friday. Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said an end to attacks would be welcome, adding that "I hope it happens."

"But it doesn't diminish the Palestinian obligation under the road map to dismantle Hamas and Islamic Jihad, including imprisoning their leaders and giving their weapons to a third party," he said.

Palestinian leaders say they fear a crackdown would lead to civil war and have insisted they would not use force.

As long as Palestinian attacks persist, Israeli officials have promised to pursue militants.

In Friday's raid, Israeli commandos surrounded the home of Omran al-Ghoul, brother of a Hamas bombmaker and himself an operative of the group, in the village of Mujarkha in the Gaza Strip.

Soldiers blew up a house and fired more than a dozen tank shells, as helicopters fired machine guns at dozens of gunmen.

The target of the raid, 42-year-old Adnan al-Ghoul, was not present. Omran al-Ghoul as well as the bombmaker's 19-year-old son, Mohammed, and an Israeli soldier were killed.

In a separate clash nearby, a bystander and another gunman were killed, Palestinian hospital officials said.

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