Israel and Palestinians agree tentative ceasefire

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The Independent Online

Israel and the Palestinians reached a tentative ceasefire agreement in the West Bank town of Beit Jalla today, and Israel said it might withdraw its forces if a truce held for several hours.

Israel and the Palestinians reached a tentative ceasefire agreement in the West Bank town of Beit Jalla today, and Israel said it might withdraw its forces if a truce held for several hours.

The day began with fierce gun battles in the townn and the adjacent Palestinian refugee camp of Aida that left 13 Palestinians wounded, including two who were in serious condition.

The fighting stopped by mid–afternoon, as both sides announced their tentative understanding. However, the truce appeared shaky, with at least one heavy exchange of fire taking place Wednesday evening.

Israeli troops had seized parts of Beit Jalla early on Tuesday, in response to massive fire from there at the nearby Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, built on war–won land and annexed to Jerusalem.

It marked the first time in 11 months of Israeli– Palestinian fighting that Israeli forces had remained in a Palestinian town for more than a few hours. The United States yesterday demanded that Israel withdraw its forces from Beit Jalla and that the Palestinians stop shooting.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres spoke to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat several times by phone overnight to try to restore calm. Several European officials, including the visiting Italian foreign minister, were also involved in the contacts.

Israeli and Palestinian officials gave somewhat different accounts of what the understanding entailed.

Mr Arafat's adviser, Nabil Aburdeneh, said a truce was to take effect at 8 p.m. (1700 GMT), but would not say at what point the Israeli forces would leave Beit Jalla. Aburdeneh said that Mr Arafat spoke on the phone to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Italian Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero to discuss the truce efforts.

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Israel wanted to see calm restored for several hours before deciding on a pullback.

"An initial understanding has been achieved between the two sides, for a cease–fire ... which will be tested in the next hours," Gissin said. "Following that, the decision will be taken, if it holds, about a withdrawal of our forces."

In a first sign that a truce was being enforced, witnesses said Palestinian security forces set up roadblocks at the entrance to Beit Jalla this afternoon to keep gunmen out.

In the Israeli takeover of parts of Beit Jalla, troops seized several buildings and set up positions on rooftops.

Most of Beit Jalla was deserted, with many residents having left ahead of the Israeli incursion. In the morning, heavy exchanges of fire erupted in the town and the Aida refugee camp.

Israeli tanks surrounding Aida came under fire from dozens of gunmen. The tanks fired several shells, including one that hit a house. Tanks also fired shells at Palestinian positions in Beit Jalla.



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