Sharon, Abbas Declare End to Violence

Palestinians and Israelis will halt all violence against each other, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Tuesday in a move aimed at ending four years of violence and entering a new period of peace talks.

"We have agreed with [Israeli] Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to cease all acts of violence against the Israelis and the Palestinians wherever they are," Abbas said in a statement at the end of a landmark summit with Sharon in Egypt.

Sharon, meanwhile, declared that Israel will stop military activity against Palestinians everywhere. He said he hopes the new Palestinian leader will lead his people to statehood.

"We have an opportunity to get on a new path," Sharon said as leaders from both sides met Tuesday. "For the first time in a long time, there's a chance, a hope, for a new future."

Sharon added, however, that both sides have to "proceed cautiously," saying extremists will oppose the "fragile" deal.

Abbas called Tuesday "the day to implement the first step of the [Mideast] road map."

"What we have agreed upon today is just the beginning to start a new relationship," Abbas added.

In one sign the talks went well, Egypt and Jordan immediately announced that they would return their ambassadors to Israel after a four-year absence, possibly within days.

But the Palestinian militant group Hamas (search) immediately called the deal into question.

The group's representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, told The Associated Press it would not be bound by the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire declarations.

Yet the deal, and the sight of Sharon and Abbas smiling broadly as they leaned across a table to shake hands, were the clearest signs yet of increased momentum in the peace process after Yasser Arafat's death in November and Abbas' election to succeed him in January.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (search), who summoned the two leaders together and has been a key mediator, said both sides showed a serious desire to "work together truly and sincerely."

"The challenges today are large and deep, but the mission is not impossible. If the road is long, we today took the first step," Mubarak said.

"The Palestinian and Israeli peoples equally deserve a secure life for the coming generations to enjoy, based on justice, international principles and good neighborliness," Mubarak added in a speech he said he was delivering on behalf of himself and Jordan's King Abdullah II (search).

Abbas said he expected the cease-fire pledges to pave the way for resumption of talks on so-called "final status" issues such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem's status, all within the context of the Mideast "road map" to peace.

During the summit, Sharon also invited Abbas to visit him at his ranch in southern Israel and Abbas accepted, according to senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir (search).

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said that meeting would take place soon.

Sharon said he would like the next meeting between the two leaders to be in the West Bank town of Ramallah, said his adviser, Raanan Gissin.

Future Meetings in Store

An invitation to both sides to meet separately with President Bush at the White House this spring added another round of momentum on the summit's eve.

The White House commended the leaders on their commitment.

"The cessation of violence and terrorism are important steps on the path to ending terrorism in the region and dismantling the terrorists' infrastructure," spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters on Air Force One as Bush flew to a speech in Detroit. "The United States will continue doing its part to help the parties move forward."

As part of the handover of five West Bank towns, Israeli and Palestinian security commanders are to meet Wednesday to prepare the handover of Jericho, the first West Bank town in the list of five, said Palestinian negotiator Hassan Abu Libdeh.

After the immediate release of 500 Palestinian prisoners, another 400 will be released at a later stage, he said.

Asked whether Hamas would continue its attacks against Israel after the summit, Hamdan -- the Hamas representative -- replied: "Our decision depends on the achievement of a substantial change [in Israel's position] to meet Palestinian demands and conditions."

Hamdan said for a truce to be successful, Israel must release Palestinian prisoners and make a clear commitment to "halt all kinds of aggression against the Palestinian people."

He contended those conditions were not met at the summit.

Still Some Sticking Points

The cease-fire agreement is not a formal written document, but instead is a verbal declaration by each side to halt violence, said Meir.

Meir said that Israel would also accept that, in the short term, the Palestinian Authority would not actively crack down on militant groups.

However, that must eventually be done because otherwise "the Palestinian terrorist organizations will have the ability to derail the peace process, hijack the peace process," Meir said.

Another senior Israeli government official made clear, however, that the end of Israeli military operations still depended on a halt to Palestinian violence.

Possible prisoner releases also were on the agenda, but any negotiations toward a final peace deal must wait until later, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (search).

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, a key parliamentary committee narrowly approved a bill that would allow Sharon to carry out his planned pullout from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank in the summer.

The vote passed 10-9 on a subject that has split Sharon's party and angered his main constituency — Jewish settlers and their supporters.

Abbas said it was time for the Palestinian people to regain their freedom.

"A new opportunity for peace is born today in the city of peace. Let's pledge to protect it," Abbas said, referring to the nickname Sharm el-Sheik (search) has earned in past peace summits.

Sharon, in what he said was a direct address to the Palestinian people, said: "I assure you that we have a genuine intention to respect your rights to live independently and in dignity. I have already said that Israel has no desire to continue to govern over you and control your fate."

Mubarak also said there was fresh hope for the Syrian-Lebanese peace track. Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations have been frozen since 2000.

"Our goal is lasting peace in the Middle East. Therefore, our movement will be followed by other moves to revive both the Syrian and Lebanese tracks," he said.

Meir said that "there was a great atmosphere in the talks ... smiles and joking."

In the hours before the summit began, the Israeli military said Palestinians opened fire on an Israeli military vehicle moving along the security fence surrounding the Gush Katif bloc of Jewish settlements in southern Gaza. No injuries or damage were reported.

Israeli troops also arrested two Hamas members near the West Bank town of Jenin (search), the army said, adding that this arrest, like others in the past 10 days, was carried out with the specific approval of the army chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon.

Israelis also briefly sealed off the West Bank town of Nablus, preventing Palestinians from leaving.

Erekat said the agreement also included the establishment of joint committees — one to determine criteria for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, and the other to oversee the gradual withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian cities on the West Bank.

The senior Israeli official said that after Sharon's declaration of an end to military operations, the two sides would go back to operating as they did before the 2000 outbreak of fighting: In Palestinian-controlled areas, including most of Gaza and eventually most West Bank towns, the Israelis would coordinate with Palestinian security forces if they wanted to arrest someone.

It was not clear what rules would apply in the towns that for now continue to be under Israeli security control — Jenin and Nablus.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.