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Palestinian militants step up threat to call off cease-fire; Egypt initiates diplomatic flurry to save peace

Daily Star staff
Tuesday, June 14, 2005

After a four-month lull in fighting, Palestinian militant groups are stepping up a threat to withdraw from a cease-fire with Israel but stopped short of pulling out of the deal.

The militant factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, accused Israel of violating the truce with continued military operations.

`A one-sided truce will not be accepted and cannot continue,` said a statement issued by 13 Palestinian factions. `We hold the Zionist enemy completely responsible for the deterioration of the truce.`

Leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have carried out dozens of suicide bombings in recent years, had issued a similar warning on Sunday.

Representatives of the two groups had agreed to honor a cease-fire, but have warned that they will strike at Israel if they feel they are attacked. They repeated the warning on Monday.

In a statement, the groups said they would continue to consult with one another to determine an `appropriate response to the ongoing aggression.`

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared the cease-fire at a summit in Egypt in February, hoping to end more than four years of fighting. The following month, the Islamic militants agreed to honor the deal. A collapse in the truce would be a major setback for Abbas` efforts to restart peace talks.

The cease-fire has brought a sharp drop in violence, although sporadic fighting has persisted. Abbas met with militants in Gaza last week in an effort to shore up the truce following a new flare-up that included an Israeli raid that killed two Islamic Jihad militants and a Palestinian mortar barrage that killed three people.

In new violence Monday, Palestinians fired a rocket into a Jewish settlement in the northern Gaza Strip, the army said. Militants also fired mortar shells and fired at Israeli soldiers in northern Gaza over the weekend, it said. No injuries were reported.

With tensions rising, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is expected in the region this week for talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials in a bid to bolster the cease-fire and to discuss Israel`s upcoming withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Egypt is often a mediator between the two sides.

The visit is part of a flurry of diplomacy leading up to a June 21 meeting between Sharon and Abbas, their first gathering since the February summit. Egypt`s Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Gheit, China`s Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are also scheduled to visit in the coming week.

In last week`s talks in Gaza, Abbas agreed to give the militants a role in preparations for Israel`s Gaza withdrawal, scheduled for August.

The Palestinian Authority also released two Islamic Jihad prisoners it had been holding for involvement in a February 25 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv after they were acquitted by a Palestinian court.

The Israeli Army has greatly reduced its activities but continues to arrest or attack militants it believes are actively involved in violence against Israelis.

Israel has said it is willing to work with Abbas to plan for its Gaza withdrawal. But it says it won`t resume peace talks until Abbas reins in militants. Abbas refuses to confront the militant groups, preferring to negotiate with them.

`Israel never had any illusions about the true nature of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad,` said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

`For us the partner is the Palestinian Authority,` he added. `We are hoping that the Palestinian Authority will finally take the steps to dismantle these groups so they don`t torpedo the process of dialogue between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.`

Yet the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership accused Israel Monday of refusing to deal seriously with the Palestinian Authority over coordinating the upcoming Gaza Strip pullout.

`The executive committee expressed its concern in the face of the maneuvers by the Israelis who are refusing to deal seriously with the key questions linked to the withdrawal from Gaza,` said a statement issued by the PLO after it met in Ramallah.

Israel `has not provided clarifications which have been requested about questions related to security, politics and the economy,` the PLO said.

Sharon`s government had also failed to guarantee that `the withdrawal will represent an effective end to the occupation in accordance with international law.`

The statement added there had still been no response from the Israelis to questions about the future status of border crossings, the moth-balled airport in Gaza and the opening of a port. - AFP, AP

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