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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Israelis, Palestinians Said Agree to Deal

By IBRAHIM BARZAK, Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -
Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to halt nearly a week of fighting after militant groups pledged to halt rocket fire on southern Israeli towns, Palestinian officials said Sunday.

The deal, which Israeli officials refused to confirm, would bring an end to the second serious round of violence since Israel completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last month. While many had expected the withdrawal to restart peace efforts, the two sides have so far failed to capitalize on the opportunity.

The announcement of a halt in fighting came as a top Israeli counterterrorism official warned that al-Qaida operatives have infiltrated Gaza. Danny Arditi, Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon's counterterrorism adviser, said the infiltrations apparently occurred last month during several days of chaos following the Gaza withdrawal.

The confusion along the southern border allowed thousands of people to cross between Egypt and Gaza unhindered, Arditi told Army Radio. "The breaching of the border ... apparently allowed al-Qaida and all kinds of international Jihad elements to enter the Gaza Strip," Arditi said.

During his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, Sharon promised "severe" retaliation if attacks on Israel continue. But he said he disagreed with an assessment made by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz in a newspaper interview Friday that peace would be impossible with the current Palestinian leadership.

"This is not the right approach," Sharon told his Cabinet. "We have to try to make efforts to reach an agreement alongside our fight against terror."

The latest round of violence erupted early last week after Israel killed a top Islamic Jihad gunman in an arrest raid. The group responded with a suicide bombing in the central Israeli town of Hadera, killing five people and unleashing a fresh Israeli offensive in Gaza and the northern
West Bank.

Israel has pounded Gaza with airstrikes, artillery fire and deafening sonic booms, while Islamic Jihad militants have fired rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel. The violence has stepped up pressure on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to act on long-standing Israeli and U.S. demands to crack down on militants.

Palestinian Interior Ministry officials said Sunday the militants had agreed to halt the rocket fire. They spoke on condition of anonymity pending an official announcement later in the day. Palestinian factions, including Islamic Jihad and other militant groups, were scheduled to meet Sunday evening.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a top adviser to Abbas, said Israel and the Palestinians agreed to stop the latest hostilities after U.S. intervention.

"Both sides have agreed to stop attacks," he said. "What is required now is to preserve the truce and calm, and every (Palestinian) party should adhere to the political and national positions ... and create an atmosphere that allows working in a way that serves the Palestinian people."

An Israeli government official said "there appears to be an understanding" for both sides to halt the fighting, though no official agreement is in place. He declined to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

Capt. Yael Hartmann, a spokeswoman for the Israeli military, said the army's policy hasn't changed and new orders would have to come from the government.

Earlier Sunday, Mofaz threatened to wage war on Islamic Jihad until its capabilities are wiped out.

"We are carrying out a broad operation against terrorism, a broad operation against the Islamic Jihad infrastructure in light of Islamic Jihad's intention to continue with suicide bombings," Mofaz said ahead of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

The latest violence has severely tested a cease-fire declared by Abbas and Sharon last February.

Islamic Jihad has only loosely adhered to the truce, carrying out numerous attacks, including four suicide bombings since it went into effect. It says its attacks are reprisals only for Israeli violations of the truce.

Khaled al-Batch, an Islamic Jihad spokesman in Gaza, said in a statement that the group is "committed to the mutual calm as long as the Zionists are committed to this calm." He made no reference to the rocket fire.

In Gaza, Israel reopened two crossings Sunday to allow cargo and other goods in and out of the coastal area, but a travel ban for the area's Palestinians remained in effect, the army said. Israel closed Gaza's cargo crossings after the Hadera bombing.

Since withdrawing from Gaza last month, Israel has sporadically opened and closed the Karni cargo crossing, but kept closed Gaza's border with Egypt — the only way for Palestinians in the coastal area to travel abroad. The Erez crossing, the main border for passengers, has also been closed since the bombing.

The travel restrictions have hurt the Gaza economy, and the Palestinians want the crossings quickly reopened. Israel first wants security measures in place.
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