Friday, March 18, 2005

Palestinian Factions Agree to Extend Truce With Israel

By GREG MYRE

Published: March 18, 2005



JERUSALEM, March 17 - Palestinian factions agreed Thursday to extend an informal truce through the rest of the year, adding momentum to recent efforts to end four and a half years of fighting.

The 13 Palestinian factions meeting near Cairo stopped short of declaring a complete cease-fire. They also set conditions on their offer that Israel is unlikely to meet fully, saying they would observe "the current atmosphere of calm in return for an Israeli commitment to stop all forms of aggression against our land and the Palestinian people and also the freeing of all prisoners."

Still, the Palestinian agreement strengthens the de facto truce announced on Feb. 8 at a meeting between Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. The agreement should buy time for Israeli and Palestinian political leaders to work on solidifying the truce and negotiating on the many issues that divide them.

In a related step aimed at strengthening Mr. Sharon's hand in securing Israeli backing for the withdrawal of settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, Bush administration officials disclosed that the prime minister would visit President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., for the first time next month.

Administration officials say they want to do everything they can to show that American support is solid for Mr. Sharon as he faces challenges from the right wing in his own governing coalition against the coming withdrawals, which are expected to start this summer.

Mr. Sharon, in a telephone conversation with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the host of the Palestinian meeting, called its outcome a "positive first step." But Mr. Sharon also emphasized that the diplomatic process would not advance unless the "terrorist organizations" were disarmed.

Mr. Abbas, who attended the talks, did not get the full cease-fire he has advocated. Still, the agreement is viewed as a success for the Palestinian leader and should improve his hand as he seeks to revive peace negotiations that collapsed after the current fighting began in September 2000.

Israel said the calm, while welcome, was not enough. "We're thankful for the quiet," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, "but this isn't a real solution. We have to see the Palestinians start to move to disarm these groups."

Still, Israel already is taking several steps cited by the Palestinian factions. On Wednesday it handed over security control to the Palestinians in the desert town of Jericho, and similar transfers are planned in four more West Bank towns. Last month, Israel freed 500 prisoners, and 400 more are to be released in the coming months. Israel is still holding about 7,000 prisoners, according to the Palestinian Authority.

Mr. Sharon also plans to evacuate Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers from the Gaza Strip this summer.

In addition, Hamas, the most potent of the armed Palestinian factions, says it will compete in Palestinian parliamentary elections this July. Mr. Abbas says that he wants groups like Hamas to take part in Palestinian politics, and that he believes this will make them less likely to carry out attacks.

The truce, now more than five weeks old, has been largely effective, but there are still frequent confrontations. In the worst single attack, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed five Israelis at a Tel Aviv nightclub on Feb. 25.

Since that bombing three weeks ago, the only death on either side occurred during an Israeli Army raid on March 10 that killed Muhammad Abu Khazneh, a member of Islamic Jihad who according to Israel had helped plan the Tel Aviv bombing.

Israeli officials say that the calm is somewhat deceptive and that Palestinian factions are rebuilding their arsenals. "Our concern is that the terror groups are using the timeout to prepare and train," said Mr. Regev, the Foreign Ministry spokesman. "At a time of their choosing they can launch an attack."

In another development, Egypt returned its ambassador to Israel after an absence of more than four years. The ambassador was withdrawn to protest Israeli military actions against the Palestinians after the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.

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