Troops could begin pulling out tomorrow

The first signs of real progress emerge in the Middle East plan to overcome years of conflict
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The Independent Online

The first genuine progress under the road-map for peace plan backed by President George Bush is beginning to emerge. As his National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, arrived in Jerusalem yesterday for talks, the three major Palestinian militant factions, Hamas, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, and Islamic Jihad, were preparing to declare they would suspend suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis for three months.

Israeli troops are expected to begin withdrawing from reoccupied areas of the Gaza Strip as early as tomorrow in a deal under which Palestinian security forces will take control, and responsibility for preventing militants operating from those areas.

"We have accepted a conditional ceasefire for three months," an Islamic Jihad leader in the Gaza Strip, Mohammed al-Hindi, said. "I expect that it's going to be finished within 24 hours and after that it will be declared, if not tomorrow, the day after."

Ms Rice was scheduled to meet with the Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Mazen, last night, and with his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon today.

Behind the optimistic signs there are plenty of caveats. It is believed the ceasefire declaration will include demands that Israel stops assassinating Palestinian militants, stops military incursions into Palestinian towns and cities, and releases Palestinian prisoners, and that if Israel does not meet those demands, the ceasefire may end.

There were also unconfirmed reports that the militants had agreed to the ceasefire only in return for a US pledge to press Israel to stop assassinations. Israel has previously said it will not do this in the case of militants it perceives to be "ticking bombs", or immediate threats.

At the same time, the Israeli government has not responded positively to the idea of a ceasefire, claiming the militants will just use the lull in pressure from the Israeli army to regroup. One unnamed senior Israeli government source was quoted as saying the ceasefire was worthless.

Israel is demanding that Mr Mazen uses Palestinian security forces to disarm and dismantle the militant groups. President Bush has echoed the demand but Mr Mazen, unpopular and isolated in Palestinian society, is loath to comply because of fears that it could lead to civil war.

It is believed the ceasefire will extend to Israeli soldiers and settlers inside the occupied territories. Earlier, some militants were holding out for it to apply only to civilians inside Israel.

The Palestinian Minister for Security, Mohammed Dahlan, has reportedly agreed to use Palestinian security forces to prevent militants firing rockets across the fence from Gaza into Israel or mounting attacks from Gaza.

Israeli troops will gradually reopen the main north-south highway in Gaza to Palestinians. It has been reserved for use by a few hundred Jewish settlers, forcing thousands of Palestinians to use tiny, dirt, back roads.

Talks continue on reaching a similar deal for Israeli troops to withdraw from the West Bank city of Bethlehem.