Conflicting Signals From Palestinians, Israel on Possible Truce Announcement

Egyptian mediators summoned all Palestinian militias Monday in a final push to persuade them to halt attacks on Israelis, and Palestinian officials said they expect a truce to be declared very soon.

The Egyptians told militia leaders they have American guarantees that Israel will halt targeted killings of Palestinians suspected of involvement in violence, participants in the talks said.

The armed groups have said they will only consider laying down their arms if Israel promises to halt military strikes, including targeted killings.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv declined comment on whether Washington has given such guarantees.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) reiterated Sunday that there will be no blanket promises. Sharon said Israel would not initiate military strikes in the event of a cease-fire, but would continue targeting "ticking bombs," a term widely understood as referring to militants about to carry out attacks.

However, Israeli officials later said Sharon is defining "ticking bombs" much more broadly and that it includes those who send bombers and other attackers. This would lower Israel's threshold for continuing with targeted killings.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom on Monday rejected the idea of a deal with Hamas (search), saying Palestinian security forces have to dismantle militias, as required by a U.S.-backed plan, the "road map" to Palestinian statehood by 2005.

Shalom said a truce would simply allow militant groups to recover from Israeli strikes and gain strength. "We can't accept this (a cease-fire)," Shalom told Israel Radio.

Palestinian Authority (search) officials said Monday they expect a cease-fire to be declared soon, and sources close to the talks said such an announcement could be made within 48 hours.

"We are optimistic about reaching an agreement," said Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr, but declined to say how soon it would be reached.

There were conflicting reports on whether the Egyptians are proposing an open-ended truce or a limited cease-fire for several months. Going into the talks, leaders of Palestinian factions said they are ready to consider halting attacks in Israel, but not in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, such a partial truce would be unacceptable to Israel, the United States and Egypt.

Egypt has tried repeatedly in recent months to work out a truce, a so-called "hudna," but was rebuffed each time by Hamas, the largest and deadliest of the militias, whose lead the other armed groups have followed.

The latest talks come after a bloody week in which more than 60 people on both sides were killed in bombings, shootings and missile strikes, and Hamas threatened multiple attacks in Israel, in retaliation for Israel's failed attempt to kill one of the group's leaders, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

The United States is trying to salvage the road map, and intense U.S. and Egyptian pressure came to bear on Hamas after the surge in violence.

A senior U.S. State Department envoy, John Wolf, was to meet with Israeli officials later Monday to discuss the implementation of the peace plan. Wolf heads a group of officials from the CIA and State Department who arrived over the weekend to supervise progress by both sides.

President Bush, meanwhile, lashed out at Hamas, calling on the world to cut off its funding. "It is clear that the free world and those who love freedom and peace must deal harshly with Hamas and the killers," he said.

The Egyptian mediators, assistants to Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, held separate talks with various Palestinian factions, including Hamas, in Gaza on Sunday. On Monday, the mediators convened all groups for a joint meeting.

Later Monday, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was to hold talks with militia leaders in Gaza. Abbas has said that he would not use force to dismantle the groups, for fear of triggering a civil war.

Hamas said after the meeting with the Egyptian intelligence officials that it would consider the proposals. "We promised to study the ideas and give them an answer soon," said a Hamas leader, Ismail Abu Shanab.

Also late Sunday, Israeli and Palestinian security officials met in Gaza to work out the details of an Israeli troop pullback, to positions held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000.

In the first stage of the road map, Israel must gradually withdraw to positions held before the outbreak of fighting, while Palestinians are required to dismantle the militias that have killed hundreds of Israelis in shootings and bombings.

In the past 32 months, 2,400 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 801 on the Israeli side.