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Truce in Gaza Is Near, Palestinian Leader Says

Mahmoud Abbas says he is close to persuading militants to end attacks. Israel suggests it will curtail military moves if guerrillas halt violence.

January 24, 2005|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Sunday that he was close to persuading Palestinian militant groups to stop their attacks on Israelis, and Israel suggested it would curtail military operations in the Gaza Strip if militants held their fire.

Abbas said in an interview on Palestinian television that he expected to have a truce in hand "very soon," after days of meetings with militant groups in Gaza.

"We can say that there has been significant progress in the talks. Our differences have diminished, and therefore we are bound to reach an agreement very soon," Abbas said.

Israel, meanwhile, offered cautious praise for a deployment of Palestinian police that has brought several days of rare calm to the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who a week earlier warned that the army would take "any action" to halt Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks, said he hoped the lull would last. But he repeated threats to act with force if guerrillas resumed attacking Israelis.

Sharon spoke in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, a frequent target of homemade Kassam rockets fired across the border by militants in the Gaza Strip. Sharon held his weekly Cabinet meeting there to show support for the beleaguered town.

"I hope that perhaps the quiet will continue," Sharon said. "If not, the [army] and the security forces will do all that is necessary to remove the threat on the residents here."

It has been five days since a rocket landed in Sderot -- a period coinciding with Abbas' talks in Gaza with Hamas and other militant groups. Abbas also dispatched hundreds of Palestinian police into northern Gaza border areas to prevent fighters from firing at Israel.

Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, said Sunday that the militant groups promised Palestinian authorities they would hold their fire for about a month. Spokesmen for the factions denied there was any agreement yet, but they said fighters would observe calm while talks with Abbas went ahead.

The groups -- including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an offshoot of Abbas' Fatah faction -- have signaled a willingness to halt attacks if Israel stops targeting militant leaders and ends other military operations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Mofaz, interviewed on Israel Radio, said Israel would probably hold off on military activities as long as Gaza remained peaceful. "It's true that the first signs are positive and the direction is right. So long as there's quiet, there is no reason for us to operate, certainly not when Abu Mazen is making his first steps," Mofaz said, using Abbas' nickname.

Israeli officials said that if the calm held, they could resume preparations for a meeting between Sharon and Abbas. After Abbas' election Jan. 9, the two sides announced they were arranging for such a session.

But Sharon broke off contacts with the Palestinian Authority after militants attacked a Gaza border crossing Jan. 13, killing six Israeli civilians. He allowed contacts again last week so Palestinian security officials could coordinate deployment plans with Israeli counterparts.

Israeli officials view the current quiet as fragile. Commentators said the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha had probably contributed to the calm. The festivities ended Sunday.

Any cease-fire could be undermined by militants intent on making the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza planned this year appear as a retreat under fire. It could also be undone by an Israeli military action that targets a guerrilla leader or results in the death of civilians.

In return for his recent efforts, Abbas is expected to seek goodwill gestures from Israel -- such as a release of Palestinian prisoners -- that will help bolster his political standing.

Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said that although it was too soon to judge Abbas' success, the new Palestinian leader was making a sincere attempt to stem attacks. "The fact that he is trying obliges us, too, to operate wisely and to encourage him to continue to try rather than to make things harder for him."

The day was not without violence. In southern Gaza, a bomb exploded next to an Israeli tank near the main block of Jewish settlements, and in a separate incident, gunmen shot at Israeli soldiers. There were no injuries.

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