- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - An abrupt halt in attacks by Gaza militants over the past week reflects an informal understanding between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the militant Islamist group Hamas, Palestinians said yesterday.

The drop in violence is the most substantial easing of tensions since the introduction of a U.S.-backed peace initiative 18 months ago, though the lull remains fragile and Mr. Abbas still lacks the muscle to reign in militants by force.

“He doesn’t have the power,” said Salah Abdel Shafi, a Gaza political analyst. “But is offering that attacks will stop against Israel, and that is what should matter.”

About 3,000 Palestinian security officers were deployed throughout Gaza over the weekend to prevent the launching of homemade missiles into southern Israel.

But there was little work for them to do because militant leaders have ordered gunmen and rocket squads to avoid confrontation and stay out of public view.

A Hamas associate said the Islamist militant group is cooperating with Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, while he seeks assurances from Israel that would help formalize the cease-fire.

“The understanding is to calm the situation and not to make attacks, or firing missiles or something like that,” said Ghazi Hamad, the editor of the Hamas backed weekly Al-Risala.

“But you can’t talk about an official truce or agreement. They will give Abu Mazen a chance for one month.”

After winning nearly two-thirds of the votes in a Jan. 9 election to choose a successor to Yasser Arafat, Mr. Abbas is hoping to get concessions from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to broaden public support.

A drop in Israeli incursions and assassinations of militant Palestinian leaders would win him points with Gazans who crave stability.

In Washington, the State Department said that William Burns, assistant secretary for Near East affairs, will today begin a trip to the region to revitalize negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. He will visit Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Meanwhile, Israel resumed building one of the most contentious parts of its West Bank barrier, deep in occupied land, in a move Palestinians said clouded efforts to revive peacemaking, Reuters reported.

Israel’s attorney general approved construction of the 2.5-mile segment along a new route near the large Jewish settlement of Ariel after residents of the adjacent Palestinian village of Salfit petitioned a court against land expropriation.

Mortar shells haven’t been fired into an Israeli settlement in Gaza since Wednesday, and Palestinians haven’t launched crude Qassam rockets in a week, according to an Israeli military source.

Ra’anan Gissin, a top aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Israel would “not stand idly by” if terrorist activity continues.

“Stationing forces and relying on an understanding is a good temporary measure,” he said. “But it is not likely to hold.”

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