Palestinian militants to suspend attacks on Israeli targets

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The Independent Online

Palestinian armed factions agreed yesterday to suspend attacks on Israeli targets for a period of "calm" intended to lead to a formal ceasefire if Israel agrees to a series of reciprocal confidence-building measures, including prisoner releases.

Palestinian armed factions agreed yesterday to suspend attacks on Israeli targets for a period of "calm" intended to lead to a formal ceasefire if Israel agrees to a series of reciprocal confidence-building measures, including prisoner releases.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, is expected to leave Gaza today to start mobilising high-level international support for the initiative. It follows five days of intensive talks in which Mr Abbas was said by a senior Palestinian official to have persuaded the factions - including Hamas and Islamic Jihad - to take the initial step by suspending operations. This offers the first serious hope of political progress since an abortive seven-week truce 18 months ago.

Mr Abbas's first significant success as President, however potentially fragile, followed four largely conflict-free days over the Muslim religious festival of Eid al-Adha during which he ordered the deployment of up to 2,000 Palestinian security personnel in northern Gaza to demonstrate his determination to halt attacks on Israel.

Earlier the Israeli Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, said Israel had made no commitments in return for a ceasefire but indicated the army was ready to meet what in effect is the primary precondition of maintaining the temporary suspension by halting operations against militants. Before leaving for a cabinet meeting in the Israeli border town of Sderot which has borne the brunt of Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza, Mr Mofaz told Israel Radio: "As long as there is quiet, there is no reason for us to act."

Ziad Abu-Amr, Mr Abbas's chief negotiator with the factions, said yesterday there was no fixed timetable for what he called the "self-initiated tranquillity". Instead, he said, maintainingthe suspension depended in the first instance on an Israeli willingness to respect it - and in the longer term to respond to the conditions that the factions had sought before it could be turned into a full and formal truce.

Beside a reciprocal halt to military operations - including attacks on Palestinian militants, incursions and the pursuit of wanted men - this also included withdrawal of the army from inside Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza and the release of an unspecified number of prisoners.

While Israel has shown reluctance in the past to release former militants to advance the peace process, there have been indications it might do so as a gesture to Mr Abbas.

Senior allies of Mr Abbas have made it clear that he will be seeking international help, including from the US, EU and Egypt, in persuading Israel to agree conditions for a full ceasefire. The Palestinian President - who is tentatively scheduled this week to visit the Davos economic summit, attended by Tony Blair and the French President Jacques Chirac as well as Israeli ministers - is likely to argue it offers a serious opportunity to end more than four years of conflict and return to the negotiating table, in the first instance in discussions to co-ordinate the planned Israeli disengagement from Gaza.

While Israeli officials have generally expressed warm approval of Mr Abbas, the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, warned yesterday that the army was ready to start serious military operations in Gaza if a suspension did not hold. "If the terrorism resumes, we shall act according to a cabinet decision that has been taken," he said.

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