Militants agree to halt attacks on Israel

Ramadan Shalah, a high official of the Islamic Jihad, speaks during a meeting of Palestinian factions in Cairo, Egypt
Ramadan Shalah, leader of the Islamic Jihad delegation, speaks Thursday at a meeting of Palestinian factions in Cairo, Egypt. The factions declared an open-ended but conditional truce with Israel, strengthening Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas's hand in negotiations with Israel.Aladin Abdel Naby / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Palestinian militants declared a halt to attacks on Israel for the rest of this year, their longest cease-fire promise ever and a victory for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. But they warned Thursday the truce would collapse if Israel does not hold its own fire and release Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon described the announcement as a “positive first step,” though he insisted that for greater progress to take place “terrorist organizations cannot continue to exist as armed groups.” A top aide to Sharon, Ranaan Gissin, said Israel would continue to refrain from military action so long as Palestinians do not attack Israelis.

The U.S. State Department cautiously welcomed the declaration. Deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said the steps “certainly were not negative” but he called them “incremental” and “very provisional.” He added that “they don’t go as far as we would like.”

What’s important, Ereli said, “is to get to the root cause of all this, which is the acceptance of violence as a means to solve a problem.”

Shaky cease-fire endures
The declaration was agreed to by the 13 main Palestinian factions including the armed groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad after three days of talks outside Cairo in 6th of October City — named for the date the 1973 Arab-Israeli war began. The announcement extends a shaky cease-fire that began in early February, and Abbas is hoping that it will prove more durable than previous ones.

Pressure is high on the militants to stick to the nine-month truce, even if a full prisoner release does not come soon and military frictions with Israelis develop on the ground.

Egypt, which pressed for a long-term cease-fire, announced the agreement with unprecedented publicity. Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief and a key mediator, read the declaration in a televised final gathering of the factions, attended by Abbas.

Abbas hopes the declaration will revive the optimism that filled the peace process after he succeeded the late Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader. In particular, he believes it will get Israel to carry out its promises to hand over more West Bank towns and free additional prisoner — and eventually lead to a return to broader negotiations.

Nevertheless, Hamas and Islamic Jihad — the main groups that have waged a campaign of violence against Israel — preserved a broad loophole allowing them to call an end to the cease-fire. The declaration says the halt in violence is conditional on Israel’s halting all military operations against Palestinians and releasing all 8,000 Palestinian prisoners, a step Israel has shown no sign of taking.

“What has been agreed upon is that the period of calm will have an upper time limit which is the end of the year,” said Mohammed Nazzal, a Hamas leader. “But ending the period of calm will be in our hands, especially if there is no adherence to the conditions.”

Free agents could endanger truce
The main danger to the truce could be posed by semiautonomous bands of Palestinian militants financed by the Lebanese Hezbollah group, which is strongly opposed to halting attacks against Israel. Both Israeli and Palestinian security officials said Hezbollah was probably involved in a suicide bombing on Feb. 25, attributed to Islamic Jihad, that killed five Israelis in Tel Aviv.

Leaders of other bands of militants loosely linked to Abbas’ ruling Fatah party say they are prepared to hold fire, at least for now.

The length of the deal is somewhat shorter than the full year Abbas had been seeking, and the Palestinians avoided the use of the word “cease-fire” or “truce” in their declaration — using instead the weaker term “atmosphere of calm.”

Factions maintain ‘right to resistance’
The final agreement issued by the factions, including Fatah, also underlined that the Palestinians maintain their “right to resistance in order to end the Israeli occupation.”

Violence has dropped dramatically since Hamas and Islamic Jihad called a cease-fire in early February. Abbas and Sharon held a landmark Feb. 8 summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik, calling a halt to all violence. The peace was shaken, however, by a deadly Islamic Jihad suicide bombing Feb. 24 that prompted Israel to freeze its promised handover of West Bank towns and freeing of some prisoners.

The militants’ previous promise to halt violence came in June 2003, with a cease-fire due to last three months that instead fell apart after six weeks.

Abbas “now can go to Israel and to the U.S. and tell them that he has done his homework, and they have to help him in consolidating the truce by more concessions,” said Hani Masry, a Palestinian political analyst.

Seeking a place at the table
The declaration also comes as Hamas — and to a lesser degree Islamic Jihad — are trying to take a direct role in Palestinian politics, a step Abbas says he hopes will eventually lead them to give up their weapons. Hamas has decided to participate for the first time in upcoming Palestinian legislative elections, and both it and Islamic Jihad are seeking a role in the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In the Cairo talks, Fatah, Hamas and the other factions agreed to work out a new election law for the legislative ballot and set up a commission to draw up reforms in the PLO to ensure Hamas and Islamic Jihad a hand in decision-making.

“This is a turning point for the region,” said Nabil Aburdeina, a top adviser to Abbas. “There is a truce. ... There is a unanimous Palestinian agreement on the Cairo Declaration.”

Short of a full prisoner release, the Palestinians may be counting on enough Israeli gestures to keep the cease-fire going. Gissin, the Sharon aide, suggested Israel could carry out a promised release of 500 more prisoners — which was frozen after the Feb. 24 bombing — if it is satisfied by the Palestinians’ actions.

‘Atmosphere of calm’
In their final declaration, the Palestinian factions said they agreed on “a program for the year 2005 which centers on continuing the current atmosphere of calm in return for an Israeli commitment to stop all forms of aggression against our land and the Palestinian people and also the freeing of all prisoners.”

The term “atmosphere of calm” — in Arabic, “manakh al-tahdi’a” — was used instead of the word “truce” — which the armed groups apparently view as more binding and long-term. The term in Arabic, “hudna,” is steeped in Islamic history and means a truce of a fixed duration, usually between Muslims and non-Muslims. Israeli skeptics have said in the past that even the term hudna implies the Muslim side can break it off at any time, a claim denied by Palestinian scholars.

Hamas called the June 2003 truce a “hudna.”

Abbas’ allies appeared eager to ensure that the cease-fire would endure.

If there are incidents of Israeli violence, “there won’t be a response on an individual basis” by Palestinians, said Sakher Bseiso, a Fatah delegate. “We will get together and consider the next step ... There will be many steps before it comes to getting thrown back into the cycle of violence and counter-violence.”