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Palestinians Agree to Three-Month Cease-Fire, Official Says

Palestinian negotiators said Thursday they have secured a commitment from Islamic militants (searchto halt attacks on Israelis for three months and that a formal truce would be announced before the weekend.

Palestinian Authority officials and Hamas (search) militant leaders in the Gaza Strip (searchinsisted the deal is not final, while Israel and the United States were skeptical about the value of such an arrangement, saying Palestinian security forces must quickly disarm the militias.

In violence Thursday, Palestinians fired several mortar shells and homemade rockets at a Jewish settlement in Gaza and an Israeli community bordering the strip, damaging a Jewish seminary. In the West Bank (searchcity of Hebron, Israeli troops razed the family house of a Hamas militant who allegedly recruited homicide bombers.

A truce might help end 33 months of violence, a necessary prelude to the U.S.-backed "road map" plan aimed at establishing a Palestinian state by 2005. The plan requires the Palestinians to break up the armed groups, but Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has ruled out using force, saying he fears it would lead to civil war.

The truce deal was negotiated by Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian uprising who has been jailed by Israel, and the heads of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups in Damascus. Barghouti, using envoys, acted on behalf of Palestinian leaders, the negotiators said.

One of the envoys, Palestinian legislator Kadoura Fares, said a cease-fire would be announced formally by Friday. "The Palestinian Authority believes it is important to get it (the truce) as soon as possible, and not to wait," Fares, a member of the ruling Fatah movement, told The Associated Press.

As part of the truce talks, the Palestinian militias have sought guarantees from Israel that it will halt all military strikes, including targeted killings of wanted Palestinians.

Barghouti's truce document says Israel must halt military strikes, but does not make it a condition for agreement. Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a senior aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said that "we're still waiting for guarantees from the Americans to force Israel to stop its assassination policy."

The U.S. national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, is to arrive in the region later this week for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Israel has said it cannot give a blanket promise to halt strikes against Palestinians planning shootings and bombings as long as Palestinian security forces don't act against the armed groups. Israel insists that the armed groups be dismantled.

President Bush, siding with Israel, said Wednesday that "in order for there to be peace in the Middle East, we must see organizations such as Hamas dismantled, and then we'll have peace, we'll have a chance for peace."

As word came of the emerging cease-fire Wednesday, Israeli helicopters fired rockets at a car carrying a Hamas militant in the Gaza Strip, killing two bystanders and wounding 17 people. Among those hurt was the targeted man, Mohammed Siam, who Israel said was on his way to fire mortars at a Jewish settlement.

Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said Israel would not compromise on its security. "Each time, we fear there will be a terrorist attack and it won't be addressed by the Palestinians, we will react," said Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

However, Cabinet Minister Yosef Lapid, head of the moderate Shinui party, said Israel should give a truce a chance. "If they will stop their terror attacks, we can stop the activities against them, and that way we can see if they are proving that they support the road map or are taking advantage of the cease-fire," he told AP.

The truce deal was negotiated over the past few weeks by Barghouti, a leader of Arafat's Fatah movement on trial for his alleged role in attacks that killed 26 Israelis.

With Israel's knowledge, Barghouti forwarded documents to Khaled Mashal of Hamas and Ramadan Shalah of Islamic Jihad in Damascus. Egyptian officials and Abbas have also been pressing the militants.

On Wednesday, Fares announced that after weeks of intensive negotiation, "the Palestinian dialogue has resulted in a cease-fire agreement for a period of three months."

"We consider this as a step to ending occupation and we salute the spirit of responsibility in the Hamas and Islamic Jihad," Fares said.

Another Palestinian source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mashal, Shalah and Barghouti had signed a document outlining the truce terms. However, Fares said minor issues still needed to be settled, and that there were no signatures.

The truce covers not only Israel, but also the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- a key Israeli demand. The document also demands that Israel begin releasing Palestinian prisoners.

This week, as the uprising passed the 1,000-day mark, the death toll stood at more than 2,400 on the Palestinian side and more than 800 on the Israeli side.