Israel, Palestinians agree to cease-fire in Gaza

Saturday, November 25th 2006, 7:30 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a cease-fire Saturday to end a five-month Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip and the firing of rockets by Palestinian militants into the Jewish state, officials from both sides said.

The cease-fire was to go into effect at 6 a.m. Sunday (11 p.m. Saturday EST), both sides said.

The agreement was reached after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert late Saturday to tell him that all Palestinian militant groups had pledged to stop rocket attacks into Israel, Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

She said Abbas asked that Israel reciprocate by stopping its military operations in Gaza and withdrawing its forces, and Olmert agreed.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an Abbas spokesman, later confirmed that Palestinian armed factions, including those allied to the Hamas militant group, had agreed to stop their military activities in Gaza and reinstate a truce reached in Egypt in February 2005.

``There is a signed agreement between the president and Prime Minister (Ismail) Haniyeh and all the Palestinian factions to resort to the agreement of the factions in Cairo in 2005, including ceasing all the military activity from Gaza, starting from Sunday morning,'' Abu Rdeneh said. ``The Israeli prime minister has agreed, and it is going to start tomorrow morning.''

Israel launched its offensive after Hamas-linked militants staged a cross-border raid in June and captured an Israeli soldier, whom they are still holding. Despite international criticism over Palestinian civilian deaths, Olmert had pledged earlier this month to continue the offensive until Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza significantly decreased.

Earlier Saturday, Hamas' leader said his group was willing to give peace negotiations with Israel six months to reach an agreement for a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, but threatened a new uprising if the talks fail.

The comments by the group's Syria-based supreme leader Khaled Mashaal were double-edged. It was the strongest confirmation by the Hamas political chief that the Islamic militant group would allow Abbas to try to negotiate with Israel. But it was also the first time he has set a deadline with an explicit threat of a new uprising.

``We give six months to open real political horizons ... We agreed on the national accord to establish a Palestinian state, with the June 4, 1967 borders,'' he told a news conference in Cairo, referring to Israel's borders before it captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

``They have to seize this opportunity,'' Mashaal said.

If an agreement is not reached within that time frame, Mashaal threatened a new confrontation with Israel. ``Hamas will become stronger and the resistance will resume ... and will go on with a third uprising,'' he said.

Israel had no immediate comment on Mashaal's proposal.

Mashaal suggested there was still no breakthrough on two main issues: the formation of a Palestinian unity government and a possible prisoner swap for the Israel soldier held by Hamas. Hamas, which now leads the Palestinian government, is considering forming a coalition with the rival Fatah faction led by Abbas.

Abbas has been trying to work out a package deal with Hamas that would include a prisoner swap, a comprehensive cease-fire and the creation of a more moderate government of professionals to replace the one led by Hamas, which does not recognize the Jewish state. Abbas has hoped the deal would lead to the lifting of punishing Western and Israeli economic sanctions imposed following the Hamas election victory in January.

The United States and other Western countries are demanding that Hamas recognize Israel and renounce violence as part of any national unity government, but Hamas has rejected those demands.

Mashaal said ``great strides'' had been made in negotiations over a new government. But he said ``more time'' was needed and stuck to Hamas' rejection of a Cabinet made up of technocrats rather than politicians from the two parties.

He also blamed Israel for failure to reach a deal for the release of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit in return for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

``We are not the reason behind postponing the decision; the postponing of a settlement is due to the other side,'' Mashaal said of a prisoner swap.