GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – A militant group linked to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' (search) ruling Fatah faction announced Saturday it is ready to stop violence if Israel halts military operations, and Israeli officials indicated that they are considering the idea.
The armed groups want Israel to stop arrest raids and targeted killings of wanted Palestinians in exchange for a truce. In the past, Israel refused to promise the militants amnesty, despite requests by Egyptian mediators who have said they could not arrange a truce without such Israeli guarantees.
However, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) said Sunday that a halt in Palestinian attacks could prompt the Israeli military to hold back. Israel is giving Abbas — also known as Abu Mazen — a chance to instill quiet through a deal he has worked out with Palestinian militant groups, Mofaz said.
"As long as there is quiet, there is no reason why we should act, certainly not while Abu Mazen is taking his first steps," Mofaz told Israel Radio. "As far as we know there is an agreement between Abu Mazen and the terror groups."
The latest statements indicate the new Palestinian leader is making progress in his attempt to persuade armed groups to halt attacks on Israel, a first step toward ending more than four years of bloodshed. Egypt has asked Palestinian officials and militant leaders to come to Cairo in coming days to finish the deal, Palestinian officials said. The meeting would take place after the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha (search), which ends Sunday.
In the past five days, Abbas has met repeatedly with representatives of the three key militant groups — Hamas (search), Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), which has ties to his Fatah movement. Abbas also held talks with smaller factions that are expected to fall in line if the larger three agree to a truce.
In a news conference on Saturday, a masked Al Aqsa spokesman, flanked by four gunmen, said the group would accept a cease-fire "if it is mutual and if Israel also commits to it." The spokesman was identified only by his nom de guerre, Abu Mohammed.
Abu Mohammed said Israel must also agree to release Palestinian prisoners from its jails. "We think that all the factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, believe that this cease-fire must be mutual," he said.
More than 7,000 Palestinians are in prison for anti-Israeli activity, including violence. Israel has released small groups of prisoners in the past, but has balked at freeing those involved in deadly attacks.
On Friday, some 3,000 Palestinian police deployed in the northern Gaza Strip to prevent rocket and mortar fire on Israeli communities. No rockets have been fired since Wednesday. On Saturday, there were only four shooting incidents in Gaza, the quietest day there since the outbreak of fighting in September 2000, a senior Israeli security official said on condition of anonymity.
Eiland, the National Security Council chief, said he was encouraged by the deployment of the Palestinian forces. Compared to lackluster performance in the past, "now it seems they (Palestinian security forces) are taking positive action," Eiland told Israel Radio. However, he said, the situation is fragile, and in the long run, Abbas will have to dismantle the armed groups and raid weapons workshops.
Abbas has said he wants to avoid force, and is instead trying to reach agreement with the militants.
The Bush administration said Friday it is taking advantage of a lull in violence to send the State Department's ranking Mideast official, William Burns, to the region to assess chances of peacemaking.
In the West Bank, troops shot and killed a Palestinian who appeared to be vandalizing or attempting to break through a portion of Israel's security barrier. The army said the soldiers called on the man to stop as he fled from the area of the barrier. The troops fired in the air and beside him before shooting him, the army said. Palestinian officials said the man's identity was not immediately known.
Meanwhile, Palestinian security forces were investigating the managers of the Karni crossing on suspicion they were negligent in their duties, making it possible for two militants to enter the area and carry out an attack that killed six Israelis earlier this month, a senior Palestinian official said on condition of anonymity. The official denied media reports any of the workers had been dismissed as a result of the investigation, which he said is ongoing.