CAIRO, Egypt - Palestinian militant groups agreed Thursday to a truce with Israel until the end of this year on condition that Israel halts violence against Palestinians and frees prisoners, participants at a meeting in Cairo said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the statement by Palestinians "a positive first step." A statement from Sharon's office said he made the remarks to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who called Sharon to fill him in on the talks between the Palestinian factions.
"At the same time the prime minister emphasized that this is only an interim step, and in order for there to be progress in peace efforts, terrorist organizations cannot continue to exist as armed groups, and certainly not as terror organizations," the statement said.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas agreed to a de facto cease-fire at a Feb. 8 summit with Sharon. Militant attacks have dropped considerably since - but a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv in late February prompted Israel to back off some of its promises, and Abbas was eager to get militants on board with a truce to push forward the fragile peace process.
"What has been agreed upon is that the period of calm will have an upper time limit, which is the end of the year," said Mohammed Nazzal, a Hamas leader. "This is in return for an Israeli commitment to stop aggression against Palestinian people and to release all prisoners."
In a warning to Israel, Nazzal added that "ending the period of calm will be in our hands, especially if there is no adherence to the conditions."
This is not the first halt to attacks called by militant groups. In 2003, groups agreed to a cessation of several weeks.
A statement released by the factions Thursday said they agreed on "a program for the year 2005 which centers on continuing the current atmosphere of calm in return for an Israeli commitment to stop all forms of aggression against our land and the Palestinian people and also the freeing of all prisoners."
Those conditions could allow Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the main groups carrying out attacks, to back out of the truce at any time because Israel is unlikely to agree to their demand for the release of some 8,000 Palestinian prisoners still in Israeli jails.
But if Israel makes gestures, the militants would be under pressure to keep up the truce. Sharon aide Ranaan Gissin suggested Thursday that Israel could carry out a promise to release 500 more prisoners if it is satisfied by steps taken by the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinians did not say how quickly the Israelis should carry out their demands, but the factions said it depends on Israeli actions how long the halt endures.
"The behavior of Sharon's government will determine if it is possible for this calmness to be long lasting or short," said Nayef Hawatmeh of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
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