- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged to keep up attacks on Hamas, and Egyptian mediators failed yesterday to persuade the violent Islamic group and other militants to call a cease-fire.

Speaking to parliament, Mr. Sharon did not mention a truce and indicated that statements by President Bush have reinforced his resolve against Hamas. Israel will “pursue and catch every initiator of terrorism and its perpetrators in every place and at every time until victory,” he said.

In the Gaza Strip, Egyptian mediators met Palestinian factions yesterday, but a Hamas leader later said, “Now is not the time for a truce.”

Palestinian officials, nonetheless, were optimistic that a deal could be announced soon. “I hope we’ll get some answers [from the militias] tomorrow,” said Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath.

Officials at the talks said Egypt would invite the parties to Cairo to continue the discussions and try to reach an agreement. The Egyptians told the delegates they had U.S. guarantees that Israel would stop targeting Hamas leaders for assassination, as the militants demand, but an Egyptian diplomat said the mediators were seeking firmer assurances from Washington.

Mr. Sharon ruled out any such blanket promise. Defending the tough line, the Israeli leader referred to Mr. Bush’s comments Sunday that called for a global cutoff of funds to Hamas.

“Because of our position, the voices against Hamas in the world are increasing, and there are calls to increase pressure on this murderous group,” Mr. Sharon said. “This is what we have done, and we will continue to do it.”

Mr. Sharon repeated the offer of “painful concessions” for peace but did not give details. He, however, added: “We will not give anything as long as the terror, violence and incitement continue.”

He said the struggle against the militant groups must include the dismantling of their infrastructures. This, Israel says, means arresting leaders of these organizations and disarming cells. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has said he prefers to bring about an end to attacks through dialogue, to avoid a civil war.

Israeli and Palestinian security officials met in Gaza late Sunday to work out details of an Israeli troop pullback to positions held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000.

Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan and a senior Israeli defense official, Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, discussed such a withdrawal during the weekend.

Mr. Sharon told his Cabinet on Sunday that he would not initiate military strikes in the event of a cease-fire but would continue targeting “ticking bombs,” a term widely understood as referring to militants about to carry out attacks.

Israeli officials, however, said later that Mr. Sharon defines “ticking bombs” more broadly. His definition includes those who send bombers and other attackers. This would lower Israel’s threshold for continuing with targeted killings.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom yesterday rejected the idea of a deal with Hamas, saying Palestinian security forces have to dismantle militias, as required by a U.S.-backed “road map” to Palestinian statehood by 2005.

Mr. Shalom said a truce would simply allow militant groups to recover from Israeli strikes. “We can’t accept [a cease-fire],” he told Israeli radio.

Palestinian Authority officials said yesterday that they expect a cease-fire to be declared soon, and sources close to the talks said such an announcement could be made within 48 hours.

“We are optimistic about reaching an agreement,” said Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr, but he declined to say how soon it would be reached.

The Egyptian mediators, assistants to Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, held separate talks with various Palestinian factions, including Hamas, in Gaza on Sunday. The next day, the mediators convened representatives of 13 factions.

After the session on Monday, Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas leader, said it was premature to talk about a cease-fire. “Now is not a time for truce. It is time for solidarity and standing united against Israeli attacks on our people,” he said.

The latest talks come after a bloody week in which more than 60 people on both sides were killed in bombings, shootings and missile strikes, and Hamas threatened multiple attacks in retaliation for Israel’s attempt to kill one of the group’s leaders, Abdel Aziz Rantisi. He was wounded.

The United States is trying to salvage the road map, and intense U.S. and Egyptian pressure came to bear on Hamas after the surge in violence.

A senior State Department envoy, John Wolf, met with Mr. Shalom yesterday in Jerusalem and was due to see Palestinian officials today.

Mr. Wolf leads a group of officials from the CIA and the State Department who arrived during the weekend to supervise progress on the plan by both sides.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell held an unannounced meeting yesterday with Mr. Sharon’s aide Dov Weisglass, who was at the White House to see National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. The meeting set the stage for a potential round of talks next week with both Israeli and Palestinian officials.

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