(photo credit: AP [file])
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday that Palestinian armed groups promised him they would suspend their attacks on Israel in hopes of ending a nearly 2-month-long Israeli crackdown in the Gaza Strip.
The groups hedged their bets, denying there was a formal agreement with Abbas, while leaving the door open to a possible halt in attacks. There was only minor violence reported Thursday, and there appears to have been a drop in rocket attacks against Israel in recent days.
Abbas said the groups reached their agreement late Wednesday during renewed talks on forming a national unity government between his Fatah Party and the rival Hamas group, which controls the Cabinet. The talks broke down after Israel launched a widescale offensive in the Gaza Strip on June 28 after Hamas-linked operatives attacked an Israeli army post and captured IDF Cpl. Gilat Shalit.
The operatives holding Shalit have demanded a large-scale release of Palestinian prisoners - a condition Israel rejects.
Palestinian hospital officials say 220 Palestinian have been killed in the Israeli offensive, most of them gunmen. Palestinian officials fear that Israel, after battling Lebanese Hizbullah guerrillas to a stalemate in Lebanon over the past month, will again focus on Gaza.
In an effort to head that off, Abbas announced the unilateral cessation of violence.
"Yesterday all factions met and agreed to a period of calm, and agreed to stop all actions which by their nature give an excuse for others to attack us," Abbas said at a graduation ceremony for new presidential bodyguards.
Finance Ministry officials said that starting Thursday they would begin paying about 240 million shekels (about US $54.5 million) to 160,000 of the government employees, the third partial payment dispersed in five months. The money for the payment came from the Arab League.
Abbas hopes a unity government would enable him to restart long-stalled negotiations with Israel.
Ibrahim Abu Naja, who heads the umbrella committee coordinating the talks between Palestinian factions, said a deal to renew a cease-fire had been reached. But he said the truce would depend on Israel.
"All the factions asserted the need for quiet," he said. "They have agreed not to attack Israel, but we want a word from the Israelis that they will agree as well ... We are waiting for goodwill gestures from the Israelis."
Israeli government spokesman David Baker said Israel would respond positively to an end to the rocket attacks, which militants have been launching almost daily for months.
"What counts are deeds and not rhetoric," Baker said. "If Israel were to see concrete actions by the Palestinians to halt terror against Israel, then that would certainly be quite a change ... There will be no need for Israeli action if the Palestinians once and for all take these kinds of actions. In their absence, Israel will continue to defend itself."
Members of most factions, including Hamas, denied they had agreed to a unilateral cease-fire, and it remained unclear whether Abbas, a vocal critic of violence, would be able to enforce it.
Hamas' armed wing issued a statement shortly after his speech claiming it had fired a rocket at a border crossing in northern Gaza. The army confirmed the attack, saying there were no injuries.
Still, the group left the door open to a deal. "The Israelis must calm down, not us," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman.
A senior Hamas official said the group's political leaders decided last week to halt rocket attacks on Israel but was waiting for an Israeli gesture in return.
"Hamas agreed to a unilateral cease-fire ... it is in our people's interests to halt all kinds of military activities here. If Israel halts its attacks, we will halt our attacks, too, including the Kassam rockets," the official said. He declined to be identified because the decision hasn't been officially announced.
Despite Thursday's missile attack, there has been a sharp drop in rocket fire this month. On its Web site, Hamas' armed wing said it hasn't fired a rocket into Israel since Aug. 7.
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