JERUSALEM -- Three leading Palestinian factions formally announced an immediate suspension of attacks against Israelis yesterday, and convoys of Israeli armored vehicles began rumbling out of Palestinian areas in the Gaza Strip.
The cease-fire includes Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the armed wing of Yasser Arafat's party, Fatah. With Israel's movements in Gaza, the efforts are the most comprehensive steps taken by both sides to stop 33 months of fighting.
Yesterday's actions also are significant advances in the U.S.-backed peace initiative known as the "road map," which has lurched forward in recent weeks. They also have raised hopes that the violence -- which has claimed the lives of more than 2,200 Palestinians and 800 Israelis -- might be waning.
Israeli officials said the movement of armor in Gaza is unrelated to the cease-fire announcements and was done only to comply with the first stages of the peace plan. They reject the truce declarations, which are laden with conditions, as a trick by Palestinians to keep the militant infrastructure alive while pretending to comply with terms of the peace initiative that call for militant groups to be dismantled.
Yet as part of a separate agreement made final yesterday, the Israeli army confirmed last night that its tanks had left the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. It said further redeployments were expected over the next few days, with troops moving back to positions they held before the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.
That agreement, which came after weeks of bitter meetings supervised by a succession of U.S. envoys and other officials, requires Palestinian police to reassert their authority in the volatile strip of seaside land inhabited by 1.2 million Palestinians and to prevent attacks against Gaza's 7,000 Jewish settlers and the soldiers assigned to protect them.
Though officials from various groups had said repeatedly last week that a cease-fire was imminent, yesterday's announcement was unexpected. It is the result of a month of arduous on-again, off-again negotiations between factions that were held in cities such as Ramallah in the West Bank, Cairo, Egypt, and Damascus, Syria.
Though Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas led the efforts, it was Marwan Barghouti, a rising Palestinian star held in an Israeli jail on murder charges, who drafted the cease-fire documents and through notes -- slipped to his attorney -- encouraged groups with divergent philosophies to end the violence.
But what emerged yesterday was not what the authors had intended. Instead of one sweeping pronouncement, the three groups issued two statements that are less detailed than documents that leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad signed last week in Syria.
The announcement was first made in a rare joint statement by Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- radical factions that want to destroy Israel and are responsible for killing hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and shooting attacks.
The groups agreed to a "suspension of military operations against the Zionist enemy for three months, effective today."
But they also listed conditions, which Israel has for the most part rejected. They include halting targeted killings of militants and raids on Palestinian cities and towns, releasing of all Palestinian prisoners, and ending the military siege on Arafat's compound in Ramallah.
"In the event that the enemy does not heed these conditions and commitments, or breaches any of them, we will consider ourselves out of this initiative and we hold the enemy responsible for the consequences," the statement read.
In a surprising development, the secular Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed wing associated with Arafat's Fatah Party and Barghouti, joined the truce later with its own statement put out by Fatah, which had led weeks of negotiations to push Islamic Jihad and Hamas into accepting a cease-fire.
A splinter group of young brigade members from the Balata refugee camp in Nablus balked at the truce agreement and held up the talks, an embarrassment for Abbas and Arafat, who publicly endorsed a halt to violence during a news conference with reporters on Friday. That faction eventually acquiesced.
The statement Fatah leaders issued last night in some ways goes beyond the commitments made by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It is also softer in tone, referring to some of the divisions that had held up the agreement and prevented a single, unified document from being issued.
Fatah did not make demands or conditions, but instead "urged" Israel to comply with similar issues listed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Fatah gave no duration for the cease-fire, but its statement says the agreement is in line with early proposals drawn up in Cairo that called for a suspension of violence for six months to a year.