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Militants formalize `calming down' period, won't attack Israel

SIXTH OF OCTOBER CITY, Egypt—Palestinian militants agreed in writing Thursday to end attacks against Israel through the end of the year as long as the Israeli government reciprocated.

The formal extension of the "calming down" period, agreed to at a three-day meeting among 12 Palestinian factions here, gives Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas a needed boost in his bid to win back Palestinian territory from Israel and restart peace talks.

He and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had agreed to end hostilities in a Feb. 8 summit at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik. Thursday's agreement marked the first time that Abbas formally had the militant groups' consent.

At the same time, the two-page agreement assures that Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad wouldn't be forcibly disarmed, as Israel is demanding.

The agreement also creates a mechanism for them to share power with the dominant Fatah faction, a move that could radicalize the Palestinian Authority.

Nevertheless, Sharon told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a telephone call Thursday that the agreement was a "positive first step." Mubarak and his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, organized the Palestinian conference, which was held in a desert hotel in this Cairo suburb, in hopes of spurring peace efforts.

"We are thankful that the peace and quiet will continue—that's a good thing," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev in Jerusalem. But "terrorist groups have the ability to torpedo the whole process."

"One attack can ruin the whole thing and send us on a negative spiral," he added.

That happened Feb. 25, when a suicide bombing by Islamic Jihad killed five Israelis and wounded 50 more in the heart of Tel Aviv. The attack stalled the handover of the first West Bank city—Jericho—to the Palestinians until Wednesday, as well as discussions of the release of another 400 Palestinian prisoners in the coming months.

Anwar Abu Taha, an Islamic Jihad delegate from Damascus, claimed Thursday that his group launched the attack three days after the initial calming-down period had ended. Israel had committed more than 1,500 "violations" with military raids, arrests of Palestinians and Jewish settlement activity during the informal truce, he said.

"Whenever Israel is not committed to this (truce), it endangers the lives of its citizens," Abu Taha said.

But the group is also considering shifting from violent tactics and entering politics, following the lead of Hamas. Abu Taha said Islamic Jihad might run candidates in July's parliamentary elections, which Hamas recently announced it would do.

The militant groups won a concession from Abbas that could allow voters to select candidates from lists put forth by the factions, similar to the process used for the elections in Iraq. A committee made up of senior Palestinian faction leaders will also come up with ways of making the Palestine Liberation Organization more pluralistic. So far, it's been dominated by the late Yasser Arafat's Fatah political movement.

The militant groups hope to emulate on a national scale the local victories of Hamas in recent West Bank and Gaza elections.

In exchange, militant groups have given Abbas "breathing space" to pursue a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Walid Kazziha, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

Before, "he was never given a chance by the Palestinians or the Israelis," Kazziha said. "This will allow him to try his way. If, by the end of the year, he doesn't manage, then others will try their hand."

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, one of the Fatah delegates and senior aide to the late Arafat, called the agreement a "turning point."

"Israel should take advantage of this rare moment," Abu Rdeneh said. "For the first time in a very long time, the Palestinian people have united ... and there is a truce committed to by all the Palestinian factions."

But several delegates described the meeting as contentious and said it ended two days sooner than expected because of arguments over power sharing.

Additional Palestinian demands that emerged from the conference included an end to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem and halting the controversial separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank.

The agreement also calls for the release of all the approximately 7,000 Palestinian prisoners still in Israeli jails, something Sharon's government has refused.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem and Nagwa Hassan in Cairo contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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