BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip -- Dusty columns of Israeli tanks wended north out of the war-racked farmlands of the Gaza Strip late Sunday, beginning a withdrawal under which some occupied lands will return to Palestinian control.
As troops began to pull away, major Palestinian militant groups pledged to hold fire for at least three months -- provided, they stipulated, that Israel meets a lengthy list of demands.
After months of faltering talks, skepticism and international pressure, these were the first tangible pieces of progress to emerge from the latest U.S.-backed peace plan, known as the “road map.”
As U.S. national security advisor Condoleezza Rice met for a second day with Israeli and Palestinian officials, both sides backed away from the battlefield -- but the truce was fragile, and tensions strong.
A White House spokeswoman said President Bush welcomed the accord.
“Anything that reduces violence is a step in the right direction,” spokeswoman Ashley Snee said.
The militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad went ahead with the cease-fire they had promised. At the last minute, a militant wing of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, announced a separate, longer truce. At least one smaller Palestinian faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, refused to endorse either pledge.
Suspicious Israeli leaders dismissed the militant accord as irrelevant at best, and dangerous at worst. They warned against the hazards of allowing the radicals to strengthen themselves, and called on the Palestinians to disarm and dismantle the factions immediately.
“It is a ticking bomb,” said Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.
Still, the pullout from the Gaza Strip could be followed this week by an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
In Gaza, where Palestinian security forces were to take control today, the transfer of power could be difficult. Palestinian forces crippled by long months of battle with Israel will now be held responsible for any attacks from northern Gaza into Israel. Palestinians have pledged to keep militants in check -- but Israel has reserved the right to step in to defend itself from imminent threat.
Nevertheless, excitement was palpable Sunday, because the eased restrictions were expected to breathe some freedom back into daily life. Earlier in the day, local security commanders met to draw up final plans and tour Gaza in Israeli jeeps. When darkness fell, heavy Israeli armor began to roll out from the lands around Beit Hanoun.
Starting today, Palestinians will be free to travel the main north-south road that runs through Gaza between the Israeli and Egyptian borders. In the new deal, Palestinians ages 16 to 35, who had been banned, will once again be allowed to cross the border into Egypt, and 10,000 Palestinian laborers will be permitted to enter Israel for work.
“The passage will be free, without any stopping or obstacles or searches,” Gaza public security director Abdel Razek Majaydeh said. “We will have free movement.”
Freedom of movement means a lot in this claustrophobic corner of the Arab world, which is pushed against the Mediterranean Sea and penned in on three sides by thick fences.
Beit Hanoun was the first piece of land seized by Israeli soldiers early in the intifada, or uprising, which began in 2000. Back then, the occupation of the sleepy farming community was criticized by the U.S., and Israel quickly pulled its army back.
After more than two years and several thousand deaths, sensibilities are less fragile. Throughout the spring, Israeli troops clamped the town into a steadily tightening siege in the hopes of smothering Palestinian rocket fire at nearby Jewish settlements. Farmers say the soldiers and their bulldozers have laid waste to about 80% of the land.
“There isn’t even a taste of life here,” 47-year-old construction worker Saadi Shabat said Sunday.
Gaza’s slums and refugee camps are a sort of heartland for Hamas, which runs local charity clinics, schools and food programs. The faction’s military wing also sends armed men clad in green shrouds, black masks or strapped with explosives to march in funerals and parades and exhort all Palestinians to kill Israelis.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad agreed to lay down their guns against Israeli soldiers, settlers and civilians. In exchange, they made sweeping demands on the Israeli government -- and laced their promise with a threat: “If the enemy does not respond positively to these conditions and commitments or violates any of them, then we consider ourselves free from this initiative,” a statement from the groups reads. “And we hold the enemy responsible for the consequences.”
Hamas and Islamic Jihad demanded an immediate halt to all forms of “Zionist aggression” against the Palestinians, including the assassination of political leaders, incursions into Palestinian territory, home demolitions and confiscation of property.
They also demanded an end to the siege on Palestinian Authority President Arafat’s compound in Ramallah and the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
“Because we don’t trust the other side, we give them a chance,” said Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza. “If they don’t come back with positive results, everybody should know we are not weak. We are not proposing this because we are weak.”
Fatah’s declaration was milder -- the wording mentioned the road map, which the other factions refuse to acknowledge; the promise for peace extends for six months and carries no explicit threat.
Palestinians described the militant cease-fire as important evidence of willingness to compromise.
Longtime Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called it “the first ray of hope in months.”
Palestinian analysts said the strategy behind the cease-fire was to shift the onus to Israel and force Sharon to hold fire.
“The factions are finally playing it smart,” said Ali Jirbawi, a political scientist at the West Bank’s Birzeit University. “They are throwing the ball into the Israelis’ lap for once.”
Israel dismissed the truce as a crafty manipulation meant to give the militants a chance to strengthen themselves.
“There’s no need for us to hold our breath,” said Israeli Education Minister Limor Livnat.
Hamas, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Islamic Jihad are responsible for almost all of the suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis.
Aided by Egyptian negotiators and jailed resistance leader Marwan Barghouti, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas spent weeks coaxing the militants to call off attacks.
Rice, in the region to try to build momentum for the peace process, invited Abbas to Washington to meet with Bush. On Sunday, she reportedly scolded Israel for building a fence to protect itself from militant attacks. The fence is being raised deep into the Palestinian territories, and activists fear Israel will use the division as a political border, thereby annexing tracts of land.
According to Israel Radio, Rice warned Sharon’s security Cabinet that the Bush administration sees the fence as an attempt to establish a border, and therefore sees “difficulty” in its construction.
“Even if the intention isn’t political ... it looks political,” she was quoted as saying. Sharon replied that the fence was a security measure, and there was no room for compromise, the radio reported.
Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Washington and special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah in Gaza City contributed to this report.