- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

JERUSALEM — In a boost to U.S.-backed peace efforts, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed yesterday on terms for Israeli troop pullbacks from the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem, and Islamic militants confirmed that they have decided to 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 L. Powell said in Washington. The White House, welcoming the pullback agreement, called it the “first significant joint step toward implementation of commitments” that Israeli and Palestinian leaders made at a summit in Jordan with President Bush.

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

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. She will supplement talks that State Department official John S. Wolf has held daily with Israel and the Palestinians.

Miss Rice’s visit would coincide with an expected formal announcement by militant groups tomorrow that they are halting 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 yesterday 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 said on the 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 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 Gaza Strip as well as the West Bank town of Bethlehem was another important sign that the parties are 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 yesterday 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,” Mr. 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 were deadlocked for several weeks, in part about who would control the main north-south road in Gaza.

Under yesterday’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 that the emerging truce remained on track yesterday, 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 bomb maker.

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

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