Middle East ceasefire boosts US hopes of building wider coalition

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The Independent Online

A sudden breakthrough in the Middle East conflict and in the United States' task of building a war coalition appeared to have been made last night when the Palestinians and Israel announced ceasefires.

The moves were welcomed by America, the United Nations and European diplomats, who believe they will help the Bush administration to secure much-needed Arab and Islamic participation in the "alliance against terror".

Late last night, however, the militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad said it rejected the ceasefire.

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, said he was "encouraged" by the development, which came after a week of growing international exasperation with Israel for stepping up its military operations against the Palestinians in the aftermath of the US atrocities, not least by sending tanks into Palestinian towns.

Last night ­ after an announcement from the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, that he would instruct his security forces to "act intensively in securing a ceasefire on all fronts, and in every town and village" ­ Israeli tanks pulled out of the Palestinian-ruled city of Jenin, which they had repeatedly occupied.

Mr Arafat made his announcement at a meeting that he had called with diplomats from 35 countries.

Speaking in Arabic at his beachfront presidential headquarters in Gaza City, he said: "The Palestinians want peace with the Israelis. They don't want war." He said the aim was to "build a comprehensive, durable and just peace with Israel on the basis of a political solution".

Shortly afterwards, a clearly sceptical Israel reciprocated with an announcement from Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the Defence Minister, that he was ordering a halt to all military operations against the Palestinians except in "immediate self-defence". The cessation was widely assumed to include assassinations of suspected paramilitary activists, wrecking raids into Palestinian-controlled areas and tank and missile attacks.

Only a few hours earlier, before dawn yesterday, five Israeli tanks and a bulldozer had driven into an area south of Gaza City where a seaport is under construction with the help of the French and the Dutch, tearing down the fence and destroying buildings.

Mr Ben-Eliezer said the Israeli army would now also withdraw from several recently invaded Palestinian areas in the occupied territories.

The ceasefires were also welcomed by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who has been urging Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, to show restraint, and by Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations Middle East envoy, who played a key part in securing the Palestinian ceasefire.

Shimon Peres, Israel's Foreign Minister, said he was confident that he would hold formal truce talks with Mr Arafat very soon. A meeting with Mr Arafat was called off at the weekend on Mr Sharon's orders, to the annoyance of President George Bush.

Western powers had feared that conflict would rule out the possibility of a US coalition with key Arab and Islamic countries. But whether the ceasefire will last for long is unclear.