U.S. reluctantly backs 3-month truce by Palestinian groups

Special to World
Thursday, June 26, 2003

TEL AVIV The United States is quietly encouraging efforts to achieve a limited ceasefire by Palestinian insurgency groups.

Western diplomatic sources said the State Department supports a proposal for a three-month truce by Palestinian insurgency groups as the first step toward a comprehensive ceasefire in the war between Israel and the Palestinians. The sources said Washington has urged Egypt to continue efforts to obtain the commitment by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to end their attacks on Israel.

The proposed three-month truce, expected to be formally announced by Friday, falls short of a previous U.S. goal for a one-year ceasefire, the sources said. But they said John Wolf, head of the U.S. monitoring team of the implementation of the roadmap, has concluded that this is the maximum achievable given the escalation of Israeli and Palestinian attacks.

"The Americans have seen the proposed duration of a truce go down from a year to six months and now three months," a diplomat said. "But the feeling is that it's better to agree on something short-term than keep arguing over something more ambitious."

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The diplomatic sources said that as part of the efforts to achieve a truce Israel allowed two senior Fatah members to travel to Damascus over the last week to discuss the proposal with Hamas and Jihad leaders. They said Israeli authorities also pledged to consider the release of Fatah secretary-general Marwan Barghouti from prison. Barghouti is said to have supported the ceasefire negotiations.

Hamas leaders have confirmed a proposal for a three-month truce. But they denied any imminent agreement and said the temporary ceasefire depends on the end to Israeli assassinations of Palestinian insurgents, Israeli military operations in PA-controlled areas and the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

The truce efforts have not resulted in a slowdown in the Israeli-Palestinian war. On Thursday, a Fatah teenage insurgent shot dead an Israeli telephone workman in the West Bank, and in the Gaza Strip Hamas gunners fired two Kassam-2 short-range missiles toward Israel. Earlier, Israeli attack helicopters fired missiles toward a car in Khan Yunis that killed suspected two Hamas insurgents and injured 15 others. The car was said to have contained Kassam-class short-range missiles.

The Bush administration has been careful to avoid open support of the proposed Palestinian truce. But senior officials said such an agreement could help the Palestinian Authority restore order in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and eventually dismantle insurgency groups.

"It's one thing to make a verbal agreement," President George Bush said on Wednesday. "But in order for there to be peace in the Middle East, we must see organizations such as Hamas dismantled, and then we'll have peace, we'll have a chance for peace."

Israeli officials said the government has assessed that the ruling Fatah movement as well as Hamas and Jihad will agree to a form of a limited and temporary truce. They said the truce proposal is the focus of efforts by Wolf, who represents Bush in U.S. efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian war and establish an interim Palestinian state by the end of the year.

"To stop the fire, there are both official and unofficial steps," Israeli Deputy Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra said.

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