End of the Intifada: Palestinian and Israeli ceasefire marks end of conflict

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A HALT to four and a half years of bloody conflict was called yesterday by Israel and the new Palestinian leadership, as both sides pledged at a potentially historic meeting to seize what Ariel Sharon declared to be an opportunity for "security, tranquillity and peace" in the Middle East.

In by far the warmest act of reconciliation since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, a smiling Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas clasped each other's hand at a meeting which for the first time committed both sides to a ceasefire in a conflict which has cost more than 4,000 Israeli and Palestinian lives.

During a declaration which went significantly further than expected in affirming Israel's own commitment to reciprocate the truce brokered by Mr Abbas in talks with the armed factions, Mr Sharon said from a platform festooned with Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian flags: "Today ... we agreed that all Palestinians will stop acts of violence against all Israelis everywhere and in parallel, Israel will cease military activity against all Palestinians anywhere."

The Israeli Prime Minister, seen as recently as five years ago as the country's most powerful opponent of a lasting peace based on a Palestinian state, used yesterday's summit hosted by the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to tell the Palestinian people directly "of his "genuine intention to respect your right to live independently and with dignity".

In his own declaration that both sides had agreed "to stop all acts of violence against Palestinians and Israelis", Mr Abbas went on to deliver a clear double message to both Israel and the armed Palestinian factions: "The time has come for our people to live under one law, one sovereignty, one weapon and political pluralism."

Mr Sharon said that his plan to withdraw the 7,500 settlers from Gaza later this year would "pave the way to the start" of implementing the internationally agreed road map, the process designed to culminate in the creation of a Palestinian state. But in his own warning to the Palestinian leadership that he would not be content only with a voluntary ceasefire negotiated between it and the armed factions, he added that Israel and the Palestinian leadership had to "act together determinedly to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure to disarm and subdue it once and for all." Officials made it clear yesterday that there had been no signed or detailed agreement on implementing the ceasefire. But Israel, which had already agreed to end targeted killings and the pursuit of militants, has indicated its willingness to hand over security control from its army to Palestinian security forces in five West Bank cities over the next month, starting with Jericho.

It was such actions by Israel which Palestinians blame for the collapse of the 2003 ceasefire - also brokered by Mr Abbas - after 51 days.

Having already pledged to release 900 of the 8,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails, Israel has agreed to continue discussions with the Palestinians on other releases, including more than 200 held since before the first Oslo accord in 1993. Mohammad Dahlan, the former Palestinian minister who has been closely involved in talks with Israeli officials said. "The prisoners are the key to any solution."

Hamas's representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, suggested the faction was not bound by the truce and its agreement depended on a "substantial change" by Israel. But Ahmad Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, played down the reaction, and a similar warning from Islamic Jihad in Gaza that "calm does not come for free" by saying: "There are good understandings between all the Palestinian groups and factions and leaders."

The relative warmth of yesterday's encounter at the Sinai Red Sea resort was underlined by the reference by the Palestinian cabinet minister, Saeb Erekat, to the recent discussions with "our Israeli colleagues" which had paved the way for the summit.

Israeli officials said that Mr Sharon had invited the Palestinian leader to his ranch in the Negev and that Mr Abbas had accepted. Gideon Meir, deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry, said "there was a great atmosphere in the talks ... smiles and joking."