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Leaders ante up for peace in Middle East

Israel's leader lifts restrictions on Palestinians, whose prime minister vows to halt terrorism by Hamas.

By Compiled from Times wires
Published May 30, 2003

JERUSALEM - Under strong U.S. pressure to prove they're serious about wanting Mideast peace, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon late Thursday agreed to lift sweeping restrictions on Palestinians and new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas promised a halt to terrorism by the militant Islamic group Hamas.

Together, the actions likely secured the needed groundwork for a hastily prepared Mideast peace summit next week with President Bush in Aqaba, Jordan.

In a statement this morning, Sharon said if Abbas and his security forces "indeed act to stop terror and violence" and if "quiet prevails," Israel will start the negotiations needed to form a provisional Palestinian state as soon as possible.

The "road map," a peace plan offered by the United States, Europe, Russia and the United Nations, calls for such a 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," Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil 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.

Among the concessions Sharon accepted Thursday:

- Israeli troops will pull out of Palestinian cities in the West Bank and relinquish security control to Palestinians over an embattled northern stretch of the Gaza Strip. Israel will lift border restrictions on both areas.

- Israel will reinstate 25,000 work permits to Palestinians who have been cut off from their jobs inside Israel for months because of security concerns.

- About $35-million in tax money will be turned over each month to the Palestinian Authority. Israel had frozen Palestinian government assets during the past 32 months of violence.

- Palestinian VIPs such as lawmakers and security officials will be allowed to travel freely between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They have needed permission from the Israeli military to travel.

- Israel will release 100 detained suspected militants and review the cases of other prisoners. That concession came in response to a Palestinian demand for the release of prisoners, which is not part of the road map.

The Israeli concessions, reported on Israeli television and confirmed by officials, followed a promise from the Palestinian leader Abbas to work forcefully to put an end to suicide attacks and a surprising promise that he could secure a complete cease-fire by Hamas in coming days.

He told an Israeli newspaper that he could negotiate similar arrangements with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other groups.

Hamas leaders in Gaza City told Knight Ridder on Thursday that if Abbas could secure an agreement to release prisoners and to end targeted attacks on Palestinian militants, the group would consider a temporary truce.

Another Palestinian militant group, however, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, issued a statement Thursday saying it would not conform to any cease-fire: "We reject the road map to hell and any cease-fire until the rights of the Palestinian people are restored without condition," said a statement faxed to news agencies.

Al Aqsa has launched the most suicide attacks against Israelis in the past three years. Hamas attacks, however, have been more deadly.

Violence in the past month has killed nearly 50 people and wounded hundreds.

With Bush arriving for the Mideast peace summit next week, Palestinian suicide attacks or a major Israeli military offensive before then could only be viewed as acts of sabotage, analysts say.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is clearly upset Abbas, rather than he, will meet with Sharon and Bush. The United States and Israel made it clear last year they would no longer deal with Arafat.

Arafat had tried to block the Abbas-Sharon meeting in Jerusalem on Thursday, but it proceeded as planned.

Although the two hour and 45-minute meeting at Sharon's Jerusalem office resulted in no hard agreements on the thorniest issues separating the governments, officials from both sides portrayed the session as a genuine effort to begin negotiations.

"There is a lot of work to do on the ground," said Dore Gold, a Sharon adviser. "There are the beginnings of a good bilateral dialogue. We're going to have to move forward piece by piece."

The meeting on an unusually hot, stormy night in Jerusalem brought Sharon and Abbas, who is better known as Abu Mazen, full circle from their first face-to-face discussion on the road map on May 17.

At that meeting, Sharon surprised the Palestinian leader by offering to withdraw Israeli forces from parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Abbas then refused the concession, saying Israel had to formally accept the road map.

On Sunday, Israel endorsed the road map, but with reservations and a promise from Washington its concerns would be addressed.

Military operations against Islamic militants continued Thursday. Israeli troops moved into the West Bank city of Jenin and killed a Palestinian 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 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.

- Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers, the Washington Post, Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.

[Last modified May 30, 2003, 22:47:49]