Israel has accepted a Palestinian offer of a cease-fire to go into effect Sunday morning, and will halt operations in Gaza in return for an end to all Palestinian violence, including rocket fire, tunneling, and suicide bombers, the Prime Minister's Office announced Saturday night.
The dramatic announcement followed a telephone conversation between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
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According to the Prime Minister's Office, Abbas phoned Olmert and told him he had received an agreement from all the different Palestinian factions to the cease-fire, and in response "requested that Israel would stop all military operations in the Gaza Strip, and withdraw all its forces from there."
The statement said that after speaking to his senior ministers and top security officials, Olmert told Abbas that Israel would respond favorably "since Israel was operating in the Gaza Strip in response to the [Palestinian] violence."
Olmert, according to the statement, told Abbas that "the end of the violence could bring about the end of Israeli operations, and his hope that this would bring stability to both sides."
According to the statement, the two "agreed to continue the dialogue to bring about an end of violence in the West Bank, and agreed to talk again soon." No mention was made in the statement about kidnapped soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, whose abduction on June 25 led to the IDF's stepped-up actions in Gaza.
The agreement, according to Israeli officials, did not apply to military actions in the West Bank. The key now, the officials said, would be to see whether indeed all the different Palestinian factions have signed on - and would honor - the cease-fire agreement.
Palestinian terrorist groups announced on Saturday that they will stop firing rockets at Israel at 6 a.m. Sunday. "We have set 6 a.m. tomorrow morning to stop firing rockets toward Zionist towns in our occupied land in return for a mutual cessation of the aggression committed against our people," said Abu Mujahed, spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees.
In a related development, Jerusalem pointedly did not respond Saturday to Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal's threats that Israel had six months to negotiate an agreement on a Palestinian State in Gaza and the West Bank or "face a third intifada."
"We don't have to comment on every remark this man says," a diplomatic official in Jerusalem said. "This is not the way we work."
The official said that Mashaal, with his contradictory
statements, was trying to "drive the system nuts. On the one hand he wants to stress the positive, a willingness to negotiate, on the other he threatens another intifada. On the one hand he says that the release of Shalit is near, on the other hand he blames Israel that it has not taken place. We don't need to respond to this."
Mashaal's comments on Saturday were the strongest confirmation of a willingness to give Abbas the chance to negotiate with Israel. But it was also the first time he has set a deadline with an explicit threat of new wave of violence.
"We give six months to open real political horizons... we agreed on the national accord to establish a Palestinian state, with the June 4, 1967 borders," he said.
He warned that if an agreement is not reached within that time, "Hamas will become stronger and the resistance will resume ... and will go on with a third intifada."
Mashaal's comments suggested that Hamas would be willing to call a six-month cease-fire for any talks and would accept a two-state solution, though he stopped short of using that phrase or recognizing Israel.
Mashaal spoke after three days of talks with Egyptian officials, including Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who are mediating an attempt put together a new Palestinian Authority government and secure the release of Shalit.
Mashaal, at a news conference, said the talks in Cairo would continue, but did not say for how long.
Mashaal suggested there was no breakthrough on either the formation of a new, national unity government or on the release of Shalit.
Abbas has been trying to work out a package deal with Hamas that would include a prisoner swap, a comprehensive cease-fire and the creation of a more moderate government of professionals to replace the one led by Hamas.
Mashaal said "great strides" had been made in negotiations over a new Palestinian government. But he said "more time" was needed and stuck to Hamas' resistance to a Cabinet made up of technocrats rather than politicians from the two parties - seen as a way to keep Hamas figures out of positions of influence.
"The issue is not a dispute over portfolios, it should be a Palestinian national unity government that represents Palestinian factions ... it should be political government," he said.
Hamas doesn't want a government of professionals with absolutely no political affiliation. It wants ministers from its ranks but has agreed they would not be well-known, first-tier politicians.
Mashaal also blamed Israel for the failure to reach a deal for the release of Shalit.
"We are not the reason behind postponing the decision; the postponing of a settlement is due to the other side," Mashaal said. He did not elaborate on what was holding up an agreement.
He said Shalit "is fine. He's in good health," adding mockingly, "He sends his regards."