Sharon to Ease Travel Restrictions on Palestinians

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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) told Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) on Thursday he would ease travel restrictions on Palestinians and free some prisoners, while insisting on a swift crackdown on violent groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The meeting -- the second between Sharon and Abbas in two weeks -- was called to discuss disagreements over security and Palestinian statehood that could complicate a three-way summit next week in Jordan (search) with President Bush.

Before that summit, Bush will meet with Arab leaders in Egypt to enlist their support. The president said he would "look at these leaders in the eye and say, I believe peace is possible, and I'm going to work to peace. And this isn't just a visit in which you won't hear from me again. I believe peace is necessary and possible." His comments came in an interview with the Dubai-based Arabic satellite channel, Al Arabiya,

The Sharon-Abbas meeting came after the Islamic militant group Hamas held out the possibility of a cease-fire to end attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis in 32 months of violence.

Israel has demanded the Palestinians dismantle the militant groups in accordance with the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan. Abbas has said he prefers to use persuasion to stop attacks. There was no indication the two sides resolved that disagreement, which could be a key stumbling block in peace negotiations.

In the nearly 3-hour meeting Thursday night, Sharon told Abbas that as a good faith measure he would unilaterally end the 2-week-old closure on the West Bank and allow 25,000 Palestinian workers to enter Israel. Israel also would ease some roadblocks around Palestinian towns and release some prisoners, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Among those prisoners were Khaled Abu Sukar, the oldest Palestinian held by the Israelis, said to be in his 50s, and Tayseer Khaled, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's executive committee.

Sharon demanded Abbas "act decisively to stop terrorism, ... dismantling terror organizations, arresting terrorists, confiscating illegal weapons, stopping incitement and creating an atmosphere of peace," according to a statement from Sharon's office.

If the Palestinians end terror, Sharon told Abbas, Israel would begin negotiations to "establish a provisional Palestinian state and afterward a permanent state," the statement said.

The Israelis also would pull their forces out of some areas of the West Bank and Gaza and allow the Palestinians to take responsibility of security there, the statement said.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said the Palestinians would be ready to take responsibility for security in areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip "after reaching an agreement on a cease-fire with Hamas and the other Palestinian groups. Now we will try our best to reach this agreement ... and I'm optimistic."

Abbas said in comments published Thursday that Hamas could agree as early as next week to halt deadly attacks on Israelis. The leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group also offered a conditional cease-fire.

However, in a statement faxed to AP in Gaza, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, linked to the mainstream Fatah movement, said it would continue attacks "in any time and in any place while the occupiers are taking our land, our prisoners are still in prison and our refugees are living outside their homeland."

Abbas says that with the Palestinian security service decimated by Israeli operations, he does not have the ability to destroy the groups responsible for attacks on Israelis.

Others say Abbas, appointed prime minister last month as part of Israeli and U.S. efforts to sideline Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, does not have the political clout to destroy the terrorist infrastructure, which includes bomb factories, weapons smuggling rings and a widespread network of underground activists and armed cells.

Israel would "definitely not" accept a cease-fire as anything more than a first step in a campaign to dismantle the militant groups, Sharon adviser Zalman Shoval said.

Terror "can start up again any day if they do not take apart the terror organizations. It is a tap that you open and close," Shoval said.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Ziad Abu Amr said the Israelis should not be concerned with the details of how the Palestinians end the attacks.

"The Israelis would do us a service if they would not try to impose its solutions on us," he told The Associated Press. "We know what works and what does not work."

The disagreement could take center stage at the summit scheduled with Bush, Abbas and Sharon on Wednesday in the Jordanian Red Sea resort of Aqaba, a meeting expected to launch the road map, which calls for a Palestinian state by 2005.

The first phase of the three-year road map begins with statements from the Israelis and Palestinians renouncing violence and recognizing each other's rights to security and statehood.

"We expect that these statements .... will be issued during the summit," Shaath said.

The three-phase plan calls for parallel steps by the two sides, but Israel has demanded a crackdown before the rest of the plan is implemented.

Abbas told the Yediot Ahronot daily that he was close to reaching a cease-fire agreement with Hamas that would commit the group to "stop terrorism" against Israelis.

Abbas met last week with Hamas and has another meeting scheduled for next week.

"I believe that next week I will reach a cease-fire agreement with Hamas," he said. Abbas said he also hoped to reach agreement with Islamic Jihad.

Hamas official Abdel Aziz Rantisi told AP on Thursday the group was considering ending attacks against civilians if Israel halted its military operations in the West Bank and Gaza, but it would continue to "resist the occupation" and would not be disarmed.

"We have no intention of giving up our weapons," he said. "To stand with empty hands facing an enemy that tries to target us all the time, that's impossible."

Islamic Jihad leader Abdullah Shami told AP his group was willing to consider a cease-fire "if the enemy is committed to not targeting our people ... as well as releasing Palestinian prisoners."

Military operations against Islamic militants continued Thursday. Israeli troops moved into the West Bank city of Jenin and killed an Islamic Jihad member during an exchange of gunfire, Palestinian witnesses and the army said.

In Gaza late Thursday, Israeli forces fired a tank shell at the town of Deir el-Balah, killing a Palestinian who was planting a bomb near a Jewish settlement, residents said. The military said soldiers did not open fire in the area. Earlier, in nearby Khan Younis, Israeli troops shot and killed Hamas activist Jihad Qidra and arrested 29 suspected militants, including seven Hamas members, the military said.