Palestinian leader seeks cease-fire declaration

Friday, March 11, 2005

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday he expects militants to declare a halt to their 4-year-old uprising against Israel next week and accept a formal role in Palestinian decision-making.

Egypt, which has been mediating talks for several years between the Palestinian Authority and militant groups, has invited Abbas and 13 militant groups to Cairo on March 15.

Negotiations have focused on a cease-fire declaration halting the uprising against Israel and spelling out a formal role in Palestinian affairs for Hamas and other militant groups. The parties are also expected to discuss the future of the Gaza Strip following Israel's planned withdrawal this summer.

Abbas told reporters in Gaza City that he will personally participate in the gathering.

Israel and the Palestinians have been observing an informal truce declared by Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Feb. 8. But sporadic violence has persisted, including a Feb. 25 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed five Israelis.

Israeli troops on Thursday raided the West Bank home of a suspect in the suicide bombing and killed him. Since the bombing, Israel has stepped up pressure on Abbas to take tougher action to disarm militants. It also has frozen plans to hand over security responsibilities to the Palestinians in five West Bank towns.

Abbas criticized the Israeli raid, saying it makes it harder for him to keep peace. But he conceded that once Palestinian forces take over, they may not be able to either.

"The Palestinian Authority cannot achieve 100 percent success, but we can achieve 100 percent effort," he said.

Thursday's raid occurred in a West Bank village near the town of Jenin, killing a man identified by relatives as Mohammed Abu Hazneh, 28, a member of the radical Islamic Jihad group.

Israeli military officials said he was behind the Tel Aviv suicide bombing. They said he was part of a cell that had also built a car bomb the Israelis disarmed last week, and was planning further attacks.

"In the last two weeks, we have been trying to capture a number of militants who have been planning attacks," said Lt. Col. Avi Gil, commander of the Israeli unit that killed Abu Hazneh. "He was personally involved in the nonstop efforts of this cell to carry out attacks."

Nafez Azzam, an Islamic Jihad leader, warned the killing "does not encourage us to continue the state of calmness that currently exists on the ground." Speaking to The Associated Press by phone in the Gaza Strip, he said his group will discuss with Abbas how to proceed.

Abbas told reporters that militants "have the right to feel worried" and urged Israel to honor its commitments made under last month's truce declaration in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik. Relations have grown tense because of the continuing impasse over Israel's transfer of West Bank towns to Palestinian control.

An unexpected stalemate over the quiet town of Jericho -- which negotiators failed to resolve in a pair of meetings on Wednesday -- has raised concerns the two sides would have trouble working out far more thornier issues down the road.

Israel has indicated it will coordinate its planned pullout from Gaza with the Palestinians, after initially saying it would act unilaterally.

Abbas said he "will not allow anyone, whoever he is, to take even a stone" from abandoned Jewish settlements. "I swear to God that anyone who even tries to touch them, we will cut off his hand."

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz traveled to Sharm el-Sheik on Thursday to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The talks were expected to focus on delays in implementing the agreements at last month's summit.

Israel wants Abbas to begin taking tougher action against militants. The Palestinian leader, wary of internal Palestinian violence, prefers to use means of persuasion to ensure quiet.

Hamas, which has carried out dozens of suicide bombings in Israel, has begun participating in Palestinian politics and is expected to make a good showing in parliamentary elections set for July.

In the West Bank on Thursday, about two dozen Palestinian gunmen burst into a large gathering of Abbas' Fatah party, ordering people out of the building and firing shots into the air.

Roughly 1,200 Fatah activists had gathered in a Ramallah hotel to discuss upcoming parliamentary elections when the gunmen burst into the building, said Dimitri Diliani, a party activist from Jerusalem.

The gunmen broke chairs, ordered everyone out of the building and fired shots into the air outside the building, he said. No one was injured, but the meeting did not resume.

The gunmen were part of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent group loosely affiliated with Fatah.

Menwer al Aqraa, an Al Aqsa commander in Ramallah, accused the meeting participants of being corrupt and conspiring against the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

"Our demands are for change and reform," he said, without elaborating. He said, however, that his group remains loyal to the Palestinian Authority.

Meanwhile, a new U.S. envoy, William Ward, took up his post Thursday. Ward, a U.S. Army general, will focus on promoting reforms within the Palestinian security forces, and improving security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians.

Paul Patin, spokesman of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, said it is "entirely possible" that Ward would intervene in the Jericho dispute. "It's the sort of thing he might get involved in," Patin said.

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