Abbas: Palestinian militants agree to halt attacks on Israel

Friday, August 18, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday that militant groups promised to suspend attacks on Israel in hopes of ending a nearly 2-month-long Israeli crackdown in the Gaza Strip.

The militants denied there was a formal agreement with Abbas, but left the door open to a possible halt in attacks. Only minor violence was reported Thursday, and there appears to have been a drop in rocket attacks on Israel in recent days.

Abbas said the groups reached their accord late Wednesday during renewed talks on forming a unity government including his Fatah Party and the rival Hamas group, which controls the Cabinet. The talks broke down after Hamas-linked militants captured an Israeli soldier in late June and Israel responded with a widescale offensive in Gaza.

The militants holding the soldier have demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners, a condition Israel rejects.

Palestinian hospital officials say 220 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli offensive, most of them gunmen. Palestinian officials fear that Israel, after battling Hezbollah guerrillas to a stalemate in Lebanon, now will focus on Gaza.

Early today, an Israeli airstrike hit a metal workshop in Gaza City, wounding two people, one militant and one bystander, Palestinian officials said. The Israeli army said the strike hit a weapons manufacturing facility were rockets were made.

Heading off attacks

In an effort to head off more attacks, Abbas announced the unilateral cessation of violence.

"Yesterday all factions met and agreed to a period of calm, and agreed to stop all actions which by their nature give an excuse for others to attack us," Abbas said at a graduation ceremony for presidential bodyguards.

Abbas, a moderate who favors peace talks with Israel, has been locked in a power struggle with Hamas since the Islamic militant group defeated Fatah in January parliamentary elections.

Hamas has rejected Israel's demands to renounce violence or recognize the Jewish state. Israel has cut ties with the government and refused to transfer tax money it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, making it impossible for the Hamas government to pay full salaries to its employees.

Abbas hopes a unity government would enable him to restart negotiations with Israel.

Ibrahim Abu Naja, who heads the umbrella committee coordinating the talks among Palestinian factions, said a deal to renew a cease-fire had been reached. But he said the truce would depend on Israel.

"All the factions asserted the need for quiet," he said. "They have agreed not to attack Israel, but we want a word from the Israelis that they will agree as well ... We are waiting for goodwill gestures from the Israelis."

Israeli government spokesman David Baker said Israel would respond positively to an end to the rocket attacks, which Palestinian militants have launched almost daily for months.

"What counts are deeds and not rhetoric," Baker said. "If Israel were to see concrete actions by the Palestinians to halt terror against Israel, then that would certainly be quite a change. ... There will be no need for Israeli action if the Palestinians once and for all take these kinds of actions. In their absence, Israel will continue to defend itself."

Militants from most factions, including Hamas, denied they had agreed to a unilateral cease-fire, and it remained unclear whether Abbas would be able to enforce it.

Hamas' militant wing issued a statement shortly after his speech claiming it had fired a rocket at an Israeli border crossing. The Israeli army confirmed the attack, saying there were no injuries.

Still, the group left the door open to a deal. "The Israelis must calm down, not us," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman.

A senior Hamas official said the group's political leaders decided last week to halt rocket attacks on Israel but was waiting for an Israeli gesture in return.

There has been a sharp drop in rocket fire this month. On its Web site, Hamas' militant wing said it hasn't fired a rocket into Israel since Aug. 7.

Israel's offensive against Hamas was accompanied by the arrests of Hamas Cabinet ministers and lawmakers. An Israeli military court on Thursday extended the detention of the Palestinian parliament speaker, Abdel Aziz Duaik.

Duaik, who was hospitalized with chest pains after his arrest this month, shouted complaints on his way to court.

"I am the elected representative of the people," he said. "My rightful place is among the people." Duaik, whose hands and feet were cuffed, said he has been held in solitary confinement.

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