Some leaders from the Palestinian militant groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade had reportedly agreed to a three-month cessation of attacks on Israeli targets, news reports quoted top officials of the ruling Palestinian Fatah party as saying Wednesday.
Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shalah appeared to endorse the agreement during negotiations in Damascus, Syria, the Associated Press reported, citing top Palestinian officials. The Al Aqsa Martyrs brigade is considered a part of the Fatah party, which reportedly brokered the agreement. Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti also reportedly participated in the talks from a jail in Israel.
Other militant leaders in Palestinian areas, however, sharply denied that a cease-fire agreement had been reached.
“We have no idea about these reports. We are still in a process of consultation within the movement. Every time we near a decision [Israel] slaughters more of our people,” Hamas leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi said, according to the Reuters news service. “A decision will be made in coming days. We will take all developments and the continued Israeli aggression into account.”
Even as news of the possible cease-fire was being reported, Israeli helicopters fired on two cars in the Gaza strip, killing two Palestinians and severely wounding Hamas operative Mohammed Sayem, according to Reuters.
Reuters reported that an Israeli military spokeswoman said the target of the attack was a “Hamas terrorist cell on its way to firing mortar shells into Israeli communities.”
Israeli forces also reportedly killed two Palestinian gunmen Wednesday after a shootout near the town of Beit Hanoun.
A cease-fire agreement would be a breakthrough for newly elected Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who has pledged to implement the internationally backed “road map” to peace in the region. The road map calls for the end of terrorist attacks against Israelis, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian areas, and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Israeli officials said Wednesday that they have a right to protect themselves from terror attacks by targeting militants and that any effective cease-fire agreement would have to include the disbanding of terrorist groups.
“It can be a positive step only if it will lead to a complete and total cessation of all terrorist activities without a time limit,” Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman told the Associated Press. “Only when that happens and the terrorist infrastructure is completely dismantled will the way be paved for a true and hopefully successfully peace process.”
President George W. Bush, speaking at a press conference in Washington, also appeared skeptical that a cease-fire agreement was close.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” President George W. Bush said of the early reports of a cease-fire, according to the AP. “The true test for Hamas and terrorist organizations is the complete dismantlement of their terrorist networks, their capacity to blow up the peace process.”
Earlier this month the president met with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jordan and urged the two leaders to take key steps outlined in the road map.
Immediately after the Jordan summit, however, a wave of deadly violence broke out as militant Palestinian groups carried out attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets and Israeli forces responded with attacks aimed at militant leaders.
Abbas has reportedly been meeting with militant leaders in an attempt to negotiate a cease-fire. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in the region for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, urged Abbas to do more to crackdown on terrorists. Powell also said that Israel’s targeted killing of militant leaders was not helping the peace process.