JERUSALEM (AP) - The Islamic militant group Hamas could agree as early as next week to halt deadly attacks on Israelis, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas said in comments published Thursday, just hours before a summit with his Israeli counterpart to discuss a Mideast peace plan.
The leader of a second militant group, Islamic Jihad, said Thursday the organization had offered to stop attacks on Israeli civilians, but that it depended on a return promise from Israel to halt military operations against Palestinians.
The announcements were in line with Abbas' promise to stop militant attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis in 32 months of violence - but falls short of Israel's demand that Abbas arrest and disarm militants.
The issue could take center-stage at a summit President Bush has scheduled with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Wednesday in the Jordanian Red Sea resort of Aqaba.
Abbas and Sharon were to meet Thursday night for their second summit in two weeks to discuss the three-phase, three-year blueprint for ending the bloodshed and creating a Palestinian state. The meeting was turning into a preparatory session for the summit with Bush.
Palestinian officials also said that they would demand at the summit an explicit Israeli statement recognizing their right to a state. An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel was prepared to issue the statement, but only after the Palestinians show concrete efforts to stop attacks against Israelis.
The first phase of the peace plan begins with statements from the Israelis and Palestinians renouncing violence and recognizing each other's rights to security and statehood.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat announced Thursday that the summit had been delayed, but officials from Abbas' and Sharon's offices said the meeting was still on as scheduled.
Israel and the United States are trying to sideline Arafat, saying he is involved in Palestinian terrorism, but Arafat retains control of most of the Palestinian security services, and under the new law creating Abbas' position, oversees the peace negotiations.
The road map calls on parallel steps by the two sides, but Israel has demanded a crackdown on militants before the rest of the plan is implemented. Abbas has pledged to stop attacks on Israelis, but said he preferred to conduct a dialogue with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Islamic Jihad leader Abdulla Shami told The Associated Press on Thursday that his group was willing to consider an indefinite cease-fire "if the enemy is committed to not targeting our people … as well as releasing Palestinian prisoners."
Shami said that the group would not give up its weapons prior to concluding peace negotiations with Israel, however.
Abbas met last week with Hamas, but no conclusions were reached. Another meeting is scheduled for next week, by which time Abbas said he hoped to have an agreement.
"I believe that next week I will reach a cease-fire agreement with Hamas," the premier said in an interview published in Thursday editions of the daily Yediot Ahronot. Abbas said he also hoped to reach an agreement with Islamic Jihad, but had not met with the group yet.
Hamas official Abdel Aziz Rantisi told AP on Wednesday that the organization might be willing to go along with a cease-fire if Israel calls off its military operations against Palestinians.
"Then Hamas is ready to halt targeting the Israeli civilians and limit the resistance against the soldiers and settlers inside the occupied lands," he said, indicating for the first time that Hamas might scale back attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, a key Israeli demand.
Abbas told Yediot Ahronot that Hamas "will undertake to stop terrorism both inside the Green Line and in the territories," a reference to both Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. "They have overall responsibility toward the Palestinian people's fate," Abbas said.
Israel rejects the idea of a temporary cease-fire.
A senior Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Alzahar, told Israel Radio on Thursday that the group was considering a cease-fire with no conditions attached.
"Hamas will discuss the issue of how to make a cease-fire," he said.
But the radio later reported that another senior Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Abu Shanab, outlined three conditions for a cease-fire: that Israel stop operations against Palestinians, free Palestinian prisoners, and withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza.
Military operations against Islamic militants continued early Thursday: Israeli troops moved into the West Bank city of Jenin and killed an Islamic Jihad member during an exchange of gunfire, Palestinian witnesses and the army said. The Israeli army said it tracked down and opened fire on an armed militant in Jenin, killing him.
In the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, Israeli troops shot and killed a member of Hamas when he tried to escape, relatives said. The army said troops killed a Hamas militant and arrested 29 suspected militants, including seven Hamas members.
The army also destroyed five houses that Palestinians had evacuated days earlier during gunbattles in the southern Gaza town of Rafah on the Egyptian border, witnesses said. The army said the buildings were used by militants to manufacture weapons.
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