Palestinian militants unable to agree on cease-fire terms

Factions unwilling to halt attacks on soldiers, settlers

December 08, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Palestinian militant groups meeting in Egypt failed last night to agree to stop attacks against Israel, a setback for a new Palestinian government that had hoped a cease-fire would provide the momentum needed to restart peace negotiations.

Armed factions led by Hamas remained steadfast against a truce despite pleas from senior Palestinian and Egyptian leaders, who sought a comprehensive and lengthy cessation of violence against all Israeli citizens and soldiers.

Three days of talks ended with the sides far apart on the duration of a cease-fire and whom it would cover. Hamas and other militant groups said they would halt attacks only against civilians in Israel, but not against soldiers or Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Participants in the meeting said they did not want to enter into a cease-fire without first getting guarantees from U.S. officials that Israeli leaders would halt military operations and take other measures to help ease conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. They said talks would resume in the near future but gave no date.

The meeting's failure could delay a pending meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qureia.

It could also delay the return of an American envoy and the resumption of U.S. involvement with the stalled American-backed "road map" peace plan, which demands concession from both sides but also requires that all violence against Israelis stop.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman led the talks, which included Qureia. Earlier, Suleiman met with the head of Israel's Mossad spy agency and had talked to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Suleiman had been scheduled to fly to Washington to brief leaders on the cease-fire.

But Hamas, the leading militant group and deadliest in carrying out suicide bombings, would not agree to the demands. "Our final response, along with the four other factions, is we are not ready to declare a new cease-fire," Hamas leader Mohammed Nazzal told reporters in Cairo, according to the Reuters news agency.

The breakdown represents a significant split between militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the armed wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, which had pressed for a complete, unilateral cease-fire.

Saeb Erekat, a chief Palestinian negotiator and Cabinet minister, said officials were upset that the talks ended without agreement. "We did not get what we expected in Cairo," he said in an interview last night. "We have an obligation as Palestinians to end attacks against Israel. Now we don't even have that."

Israeli officials had vowed not to be a part of a cease-fire, but said they were ready to make concessions should violence stop, including ending assassinations of militants, stopping raids into Palestinian cities and towns, and easing travel and other restrictions.

Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said the army was prepared to go from offensive to defensive. "If there is quiet, we will refrain from taking military action," he said last night. "We will not pursue the terrorists."

Gissin had earlier rejected the partial cease-fire proposed by Hamas - which applied only to civilians in Israel - as a "half cease-fire" limiting potential victims "by geography and to certain people. It really is a farce."

The spokesman called the failed talks in Cairo further proof "that you cannot negotiate with terrorists" and said innocent Palestinians would end up paying the price. "As we expected, the Palestinian leaders have signed a suicide pact with Palestinian society," Gissin said. "It really is regrettable."

Palestinian militants agreed this summer to a three-month cease-fire that lasted 50 days before falling apart in August when the Israeli army killed several factional leaders and suicide bombers responded with a series of attacks, including one on a bus in Jerusalem that killed 20 passengers.

But the past several months have remained relatively quiet. The last suicide bombing was Sept. 9.

Israel officials call the quiet deceptive and say they have intercepted or prevented dozens of attacks in the past several weeks. But army leaders have said recently that Hamas has quietly suspended attacks fearing that the next one will lead to a devastating response by Israel.

Leaders on both sides were hopeful that a cease-fire could be obtained allowing the resumption of talks. But mistrust remains great, and each side is making demands the other finds difficult to follow.

The Palestinians want guarantees from the White House that Israel will refrain from launching attacks, pull troops out of its cities, release prisoners and stop building a barrier through the West Bank. The Israelis are demanding that Palestinian police dismantle the militant groups.

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