- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2003

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Three major Palestinian groups declared a temporary cease-fire yesterday after 33 months of violence, and Israel pulled out of part of the Gaza Strip, creating breakthroughs in the U.S.-backed bid for peace.

The militant Islamic Jihad and Hamas groups announced a joint three-month cease-fire, while Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction declared a six-month truce.

Israel expressed doubts about the promises and insisted that the Palestinian Authority disarm the militants. The Bush administration welcomed news of the cease-fire but said it wanted to see more progress in the “road map” to peace.

“Anything that reduces violence is a step in the right direction,” White House spokeswoman Ashley Snee said. “Under the road map, parties have an obligation to dismantle terrorist infrastructure. There is still more work to be done.”

Hopes for a turning point in the conflict also were boosted by a new security deal in which Israel was handing the Palestinian Authority control of a key area of Gaza.

Scores of Israeli armored vehicles pulled out of the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun after sundown, in line with a weekend agreement to restore Palestinian security control of some areas Israel reoccupied during the more than 1,000 days of fighting.

Yesterday’s developments came as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem a day after meeting with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas.

Seeking to build on the advances, Miss Rice is talking to both sides about further steps in implementing the road map to Middle East peace and Palestinian statehood by 2005, introduced by President Bush at a June 4 summit.

Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader, read the Islamic militants’ truce announcement in a telephone interview. “The two movements decided to suspend military operations against the Zionist enemy for three months, starting today,” Mr. Rantisi said.

Islamic Jihad leader Mohammed al-Hindi confirmed that the truce took effect yesterday.

Mr. Rantisi reiterated a list of demands that accompanied suspending the attacks. The two groups want Israel to halt all military strikes, including targeted killings of wanted militants. They also seek a release of Palestinian prisoners.

“We consider ourselves free from this initiative if the Israeli enemy does not implement all the conditions,” said Mr. Rantisi, who survived a recent Israeli missile strike against him.

A Fatah-affiliated militia, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, initially rejected the truce but came on board in time for the announcement, though renegade offshoots of the group threatened to continue violence.

Israeli officials said they feared that militants would use the cease-fire to regroup and plan more attacks. The government wants the Palestinian Authority to dismantle militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as required by the road map.

“We are not holding our breath,” Israeli Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir said. “There cannot be peace with Hamas and peace with Israel at the same time. It’s either/or.”

Miss Rice and Mr. Sharon, meanwhile, discussed the Israeli troop pullback and an easing of restrictions, including a release of Palestinian prisoners and a rebuilding of the Palestinians’ international airport in southern Gaza, an Israeli official said. Israel destroyed the runway in 2001.

The official also said Miss Rice criticized the building of an Israeli security fence around parts of the West Bank, saying it could prejudice negotiations about a border.

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