JERUSALEM – Palestinian leaders could reach an agreement with the Islamic militant group Hamas (search) to stop homicide attacks and other violence against Israelis as early as next week, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) said in comments published Thursday.
Reaching a cease-fire with Palestinian militant groups is one of the key demands Israel and the United States are making on the new Palestinian premier, and Abbas' comments come just hours before a summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss a U.S.-backed peace plan.
"I believe that next week I will reach a cease-fire agreement with Hamas," the premier said in an interview published in the daily Yediot Ahronot. Abbas said he also hoped to reach an agreement with the Islamic Jihad (search), but had not met with the group yet.
The announcement is in line with Abbas' promise to stop militant attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis since the latest violence began — a crucial requirement of the first phase of an internationally backed "road map" to peace.
The road map calls for parallel steps by the two sides, but Israel has demanded that Abbas crack down on violent groups before the rest of the plan is implemented. Abbas has said he preferred dialogue over the Israeli demand that he arrest and disarm militants.
The planned meeting between Abbas and Sharon Thursday night was turning into a preparatory session for a summit with President Bush, which the White House announced would take place Wednesday in the Jordanian Red Sea resort of Aqaba.
Palestinian officials also said they would demand an explicit Israeli statement recognizing their right to a state.
A senior Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Alzahar, told Israel Radio on Thursday that the group was considering a cease-fire with no conditions attached.
"Hamas will discuss the issue of how to make a cease-fire," he said.
But the radio later reported that another senior Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Abu Shanab, outlined three conditions for a cease-fire: that Israel stop operations against Palestinians, free Palestinian prisoners, and withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza.
Abbas met last week with Hamas, but no conclusions were reached. Another meeting is scheduled for next week, by which time Abbas said he hoped to have an agreement.
Hamas official Abdel Aziz Rantisi told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the organization might be willing to go along with a cease-fire if Israel calls off its military operations against Palestinians.
"Then Hamas is ready to halt targeting the Israeli civilians and limit the resistance against the soldiers and settlers inside the occupied lands," he said, indicating for the first time that Hamas might scale back attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, a key Israeli demand.
Abbas told Yediot Ahronot that Hamas "will undertake to stop terrorism both inside the Green Line and in the territories," a reference to both Israel and the West Bank and Gaza.
"They have overall responsibility toward the Palestinian people's fate," Abbas said.
Israel rejects the idea of a temporary cease-fire.
The first phase of the peace plan begins with statements from the Israelis and Palestinians renouncing violence and recognizing each other's rights to security and statehood.
At Thursday's summit, "We will demand an Israeli statement recognizing a Palestinian state," Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Abu Amr said Wednesday.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel was prepared to issue the statement, but only after the Palestinians show concrete efforts to stop attacks against Israelis.
The Palestinian goal is a formal statement at the three-way summit in Jordan, where Bush plans to push implementation of the road map. Bush hopes to "focus on moving forward," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
At the same time, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said, "We are ready to issue the statement that is mentioned in the road map and to implement all our commitments."
U.S. officials have indicated they do not plan to make changes in the road map, but will take Israel's reservations into account.
Amr said that at the Abbas-Sharon meeting, Palestinians would also demand an end to Israeli operations in Palestinian areas, lifting travel restrictions and releasing prisoners — all parts of the plan's first phase.
Israeli troops moved into the West Bank city of Jenin early Thursday and killed a member of the militant Islamic Jihad organization during an exchange of gunfire, Palestinian witnesses and the army said. The Israeli army said it tracked down and opened fire on an armed militant in Jenin, killing him.
In the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, Israeli troops shot and killed a member of Hamas when he tried to escape, relatives said. The army said troops killed a Hamas militant and arrested 29 suspected militants, including seven Hamas members.