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Israel agrees to curb strikes on Palestinian militants, sources say
Talks between Hamas, Abbas continue
By Mark Heinrich, Reuters, 6/18/2003
JERUSALEM -- Israel has agreed to curb its "track-and-kill" operations against Palestinian militants, in a deal struck with U.S. officials to help them salvage a new peace plan torn by violence, security sources said Wednesday.
The militant group Hamas resumed direct talks later in the day with moderate Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on his request for a cease-fire to advance the "road map" peace initiative launched by President Bush on June 4.
Both developments, together with a trouble-shooting visit by Secretary of State Colin Powell planned for Friday, raised hopes the peace plan might survive a welter of bloodshed last week.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sanctioned a helicopter missile strike on Hamas political leader Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi on June 10. Rantissi survived, but the assassination attempt engulfed U.S.-sponsored peacemaking in turmoil.
Hamas responded by killing 17 Jerusalem bus passengers in a suicide bombing. Israel followed with further air attacks that killed some wanted Hamas men but more bystanders. The violence boosted powerful foes of negotiated compromise on both sides.
Washington demanded restraint to enable confidence-building steps required of each side under the road map.
Truce talks between Abbas and 13 militant groups broke up inconclusively Tuesday, and moments later Palestinian gunmen killed a young Israeli girl in a car near the West Bank.
On Wednesday, security sources said Israeli officials agreed in a White House meeting this week that only militants seen as imminent attack threats, and not top political figures with widespread popularity, would be targeted from now on.
"We have undertaken to limit our track-and-kill operations to terrorists who are definitely 'ticking bombs.' When it comes to more borderline cases such as Rantissi ... we will hold fire as much as possible," one Israel security source told Reuters.
"This is to demonstrate to all sides that Israel is serious about giving the current round of talks the best chance of succeeding and forestall Palestinian charges of 'sabotage."'
Hamas official Ismail Haniyah scorned Israel's gesture. "It indicates that they will continue assassinations. We reject any classification for who can be assassinated. Assassinations must stop and the occupiers must leave," he said in Gaza City.
The deal was worked out by Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, in the latest of a series of trips to Washington to resolve disputes over a peace plan that Sharon's coalition Cabinet endorsed only under U.S. pressure.
The road map envisages a Palestinian state in Israeli-occupied territory by 2005 after a dismantling of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a Palestinian crackdown on militants committed to destroying Israel.
Sharon had ruled out progress on the plan unless Abbas can subdue Hamas, which has spearheaded a 32-month-old revolt.
Hamas officials entered Abbas' Gaza City compound early Wednesday night to resume truce talks. Hamas had severed such contacts after Bush's June 4 summit with Abbas and Sharon to protest what it called "unacceptable concessions" by Abbas.
"Dialogue will resume because of our interest to pursue internal dialogue, despite differences in our agendas. We will address the latest developments on the ground," Haniyah said.
Two militant groups, one within Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed joint responsibility for Tuesday's attack on the car in which the Israeli girl was shot near Kibbutz Eyal in central Israel.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Nidal al-Mughrabi