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Palestinians, Israelis start cease-fire

Times Staff Writer

Israel and the Palestinians halted their hostilities in the Gaza Strip today, reinstating an often-broken cease-fire that could lead to the first talks between their leaders since June.

The accord, struck late Saturday during a telephone call from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, took effect at 6 a.m. Shortly afterward, Israel announced that it had pulled its troops out of the coastal territory during the night.

If the indefinite cease-fire holds, it will end five months of punishing Israeli military incursions into Gaza as well as the daily firing of rockets by Palestinian militants at cities and towns in Israel. It also could create momentum toward a resumption of peace talks that collapsed six years ago.

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Hamas, one of several Palestinian parties to the pact, said it had fired its last three rockets into Israel half an hour before the cease-fire. One damaged a home in Sderot but caused no injuries, Israeli officials said.

An Israeli government spokeswoman, Miri Eisen, said the cease-fire accord included a halt to Palestinian suicide attacks in or from Gaza and a cessation of weapons smuggling into Gaza from Egypt.

Nabil abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for Abbas, said that all Palestinian armed factions had signed an agreement to “cease military activities from Gaza,” restoring a truce reached in Egypt in February 2005.

Among the groups committed to the accord, he said, was Islamic Jihad, which had previously rejected any cease-fire with Israel, and Hamas, which governs the Palestinian Authority and has refused to recognize Israel.

The Bush administration, eager to revive talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, welcomed the announcement as “a positive step forward,” White House spokesman Alex Conant said. “We hope it leads to less violence for the Israeli and Palestinian people.”

The cease-fire was a major achievement for Abbas, who had been pressing Palestinian militant groups for months. He retained the presidency after his more moderate Fatah Party lost control of the government to Hamas in March, and has criticized Hamas’ role in escalating the conflict with Israel.

Since summer, Abbas said last week, Palestinians in Gaza have been “victims of a barbaric Israeli offensive that has left more than 400 dead and 1,500 wounded, while thousands of homes have been destroyed.”

But he added, “All that on the pretext of homemade rocket fire, and unfortunately we are giving them such a pretext.”

Since Israel unilaterally withdrew its military outposts and settlers from the coastal territory in September 2005, at least 1,100 crude Kassam rockets have been fired from Gaza, killing two Israeli civilians, both in the last 12 days.

Israeli forces returned to Gaza in late June after militants with several Palestinian groups, including Hamas, captured Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid. The Israelis have made frequent and increasingly large incursions into Gaza since then, trying to halt the rocket attacks. Three Israeli soldiers have died in the fighting.

Rejecting international criticism of the offensive, which has left scores of Palestinian civilians dead, Olmert said this month that the Israeli offensive would continue until the rocket fire was significantly diminished.

In fighting Saturday, Israeli forces killed four Palestinian fighters and wounded at least six other people, including an unarmed 12-year-old boy.

The cease-fire accord came a day after Israel rejected an offer by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas to stop the rockets in return for a halt in Israeli military operations in the West Bank and Gaza.

“Abbas then came back with an offer of a full cease-fire, in exchange for our stopping in Gaza only, and Olmert agreed,” said Eisen, the Israeli spokeswoman.

Israeli-Palestinian cease-fires break down frequently, and it appeared today that there was some uncertainty over the terms of this one.

One party to the accord, the Popular Resistance Committees, said it still expected Israel to stop military operations in the West Bank as well. Asked whether such operations could provoke more rockets from Gaza, a spokesman for the group, Abu Abir, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Israel must first pull out of Gaza.

“After that, we can talk about what we would view as a violation of the cease-fire,” he said.

Israeli officials said they were worried that Hamas would use the cease-fire to smuggle more weapons through tunnels from Egypt. Eisen acknowledged that it would be difficult for Israel to monitor the border.

Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas political leader, underscored those concerns Saturday by threatening a major uprising against Israel. At the same time, he appeared to endorse an effort by Abbas to try to negotiate agreements with Israel to head off violence.

“We give them six months to open real political horizons,” Meshaal said at a news conference in Cairo. Otherwise, he said, “Hamas will become stronger and the resistance will resume.”

Olmert said this month that he was eager to meet with Abbas and willing to make unspecified concessions. The two men have met once as leaders -- a stiff protocol session that took place in Jordan in June, two days before the capture of the Israeli soldier.

Any talks between them would inevitably focus on prisoners and the Palestinians’ international isolation.

Israel wants the captive soldier returned before it releases hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from its jails, as Hamas has demanded.

Abbas wants Israel to stop withholding tax revenue and duties collected on behalf of the Palestinians.

Israel insists that the Palestinian government first must meet Western nations’ conditions for ending the crippling economic sanctions imposed after Hamas came to power: that it recognize the Jewish state, renounce violence and honor previous Israeli-Arab agreements.

Hamas has rejected those demands and resisted Abbas’ efforts to negotiate a replacement of the Hamas-led Cabinet with technocrats not affiliated with any political party.

boudreaux@latimes.com


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