Israelis, Palestinians to cease fire

Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed to declare simultaneous ceasefires during Tuesday’s summit in Egypt, a breakthrough that could end a bloody four-year uprising and ease the way for more far-reaching steps toward peace.

An aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the two sides would not sign a mutual truce but their actions would have the same effect.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is to announce an end to the uprising that began in September 2000, while Israel would halt its military activities if the Palestinians make good on their promise to crack down on armed militants, said the Sharon aide, Raanan Gissin.

Israel was also expected to announce it would release 900 Palestinian prisoners and pull its troops from five West Bank cities, handing over security to Palestinian forces.

The agreed-upon gestures-and the air of cooperation that produced them-mark the most promising moves at conciliation since the outbreak of the intifada, which left more than 4,000 people dead, mostly Palestinians.

Still, memories linger of failed talks two years ago; The last time Sharon held meetings with Abbas, then in a short-lived tenure as Palestinian prime minister. A similar summit at the time, in Aqaba, Jordan, had also raised hopes for a breakthrough, but subsequent talks bogged down over security and some of the same issues currently being discussed.

Gissin said the climate for progress has improved since the death of Yasser Arafat, long viewed by Israel as an obstacle to peace. He said further gains would hinge on Palestinians’ ability to preserve calm.

“Security is the word here,” he said.

Abbas declined to spell out the ceasefire terms ahead of the summit in the Egyptian seaside resort of Sharm el Sheik. Speaking to reporters after a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah with the French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, Abbas said the agreement would “open the way for more negotiations to implement the road map.” He was referring to the U.S.-backed diplomatic initiative calling for the sides to announce an end to fighting.

A truce declaration would formalize a de facto ceasefire that has resulted in a relative calm for about two weeks, with Palestinian militants promising to hold their fire and Israel curtailing military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Abbas has persuaded militant groups to cease their attacks while he pursued agreements with the Israelis. But any lasting calm would depend on the militants.

Mahmoud Zahar, the top Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, said late Monday that the group wanted to assess the results of the summit before committing to a long-term ceasefire.

“Our position is that the announcement should not be done before coming back to the Palestinian factions and talking with them about what has been achieved (during the summit), so that the picture does not look as if it is a partial or uncompleted agreement,” Zahar said in Gaza City.

News of the expected ceasefire came hours after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice capped a two-day Middle East visit Monday by offering the Palestinians $40 million in immediate aid and announcing that a U.S. Army general would be named as “Security coordinator” to help Israel and the Palestinians manage nascent peace efforts.

Palestinians and Israelis have looked forward to the summit with wary optimism. Ordinary people on both sides say they are tired of the fighting and eager to return to normalcy after so much violence.

– Special correspondents Tami Zer in Tel Aviv and Fayed abu Shammalah in Gaza City contributed to this report.

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles TImes-Washington Post news service.