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Palestinian groups agree open-ended period of calm
Updated: 2005-03-17 23:49

Palestinian factions declared an open-ended but conditional truce with Israel Thursday, strengthening President Mahmoud Abbas's hand in efforts to persuade the Jewish state to hand back more West Bank towns and free prisoners.

"Attendees agreed to maintain the recent calm in exchange for Israel's commitment to stop all forms of attacks and release prisoners," said a statement drawn up by Palestinian factions at the end of 48 hours of talks outside Cairo.

Abbas needs the truce to hold so he can persuade Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territory, free prisoners and take other steps to make life easier for ordinary Palestinians.

He says a period of calm should lead to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks on an independent Palestinian state.

But Israel's first response was to repeat its long-standing demand that Abbas dismantle the militant groups.

"The real test will be the action the Palestinian Authority takes on the ground. As long as these organizations remain armed, I doubt very much that there will be much quiet on the ground," a senior Israeli official said.

Abbas has tried to draw the militants into political action and away from military activities. Palestinians say the Israeli demands are designed to provoke civil war between Palestinians.

Militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad have pressed for a time limit on the ceasefire, with a timetable for Israel to meet Palestinian demands. One militant official said that if Israel did not comply, the militants would know how to respond.

The militants held out till late in the talks, which began in Cairo on Tuesday night. In deference to their views, the final statement says the Palestinian people have the right to resist the Israeli occupation.

Anwar Abu Taha, an Islamic Jihad official, said the factions had not specified a time frame for the ceasefire.

But he added: "The decision... depends on Israel's commitment to halt all kinds of assaults against the Palestinian people and on commitment to the withdrawals and releasing prisoners."

A senior Palestinian Authority official, who asked not to be named, gave an almost identical account of the agreement.

The final statement also offered the militants the prospect of integration into a reactivated Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which for the past 40 years has been the monopoly of secular, leftist and nationalist groups.

Abu Emad al-Rifai, another Islamic Jihad official, said that although the ceasefire was open-ended, it could hold only as long as Israel met its obligations.

"If the Israelis don't respond, the resistance will know how to act," he said.

Abbas aide Jibril Rajoub said it was now the turn of the international community to lean on Israel.

"We have declared today a total ceasefire and now we are asking the international community to put pressure on Israel so they will abide by their commitments.

"The ball now is in Israel's court. From our side we have a commitment to a ceasefire. This declaration will pave the way to restore the political process," he said.

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