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Arafat, Peres Agree to Pursue Peace Plan

The meeting occurred despite continued violence that has strained a ceasefire declared over a week ago.

During the two-and-a-half hour meeting at Gaza International Airport, the two leaders committed themselves to implementing the Mitchell report, a ceasefire plan proposed by a commission led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell in May.

“In accordance with the parties’ commitments, they will carry out all their security obligations emanating from previous agreements, and the government of Israel will begin to lift closures and redeploy its forces,” the leaders said in a joint statement.

In exchange for the easing of Israeli military blockades of Palestinian areas, expected to begin within 48 hours, the Palestinians must stop violence directed at Israeli soldiers and citizens.

Israel also wants the Palestinian Authority to arrest prominent militants wanted by Israeli authorities, but Palestinian officials say they will only detain those who endanger the ceasefire.

Israel has also agreed to redeploy its forces from areas it seized since the Palestinian uprising began almost one year ago.

Officials from both sides plan to meet on Friday to discuss the specific security measures necessary to implement the truce.

Today’s meeting, the first between Israeli and Palestinian officials since June 29, had been postponed several times over the past several weeks because Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insisted any talks be preceded by 48 hours without violence. Peres reportedly told aides earlier this week that he would consider resigning if Sharon canceled the talks again.

U.S. officials today welcomed the agreement, which they hope will ease U.S. efforts to recruit Arab nations for the global coalition against terrorism.

“The United States calls on both sides to seize the moment and exercise maximum efforts to follow up these positive developments with immediate concrete actions,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

“I am pleased some progress was made,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said. “I hope we can move rapidly.”

Despite the promising tone of today’s meeting, violence continued just a few miles away from the Gaza airport. A bomb exploded at an Israeli post in southern Gaza, wounding three soldiers. The militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility.

When Palestinian youths proceeded to throw stones at that same Israeli post, soldiers responded with tear gas and live rounds. A 16-year-old boy was killed, and 11 other teenagers were wounded, three critically.

Four Palestinians and two Israelis have been killed since the ceasefire was declared.

Palestinian militant groups, which have claimed responsibility for a series of suicide bombings inside Israel, rejected the peace agreement and said they will continue their strikes against the Israeli government until all occupation of Palestinian areas ends.

“Everything that was agreed upon is practically valueless because it will not lead to any change in the nature of the occupation on the ground,” Abdallah al-Shami, the spokesman for the Islamic Jihad militant group, said.

Hamas has also said that it will continue its suicide attacks until the West Bank and Gaza are no longer occupied by Israelis.