JERUSALEM - Three Palestinian militant groups agreed yesterday to halt attacks on Israel for three months, an accord that remained tenuous as violence continued on both sides, and local militia leaders said a formal truce was not yet a certainty.
Underscoring the fragility of any agreement, an Israeli helicopter fired missiles in Gaza yesterday that wounded a Palestinian militant and killed two bystanders. Earlier, Israeli soldiers shot and killed two men who had fired on a tank, also in Gaza.
Israeli police, meanwhile, arrested two Palestinians with a 22-pound bomb northeast of Tel Aviv. And authorities in Jerusalem were put on high alert last night based on a report that a suicide bomber had infiltrated the city.
Palestinian officials cautioned that formal announcement of a cease-fire could still be days away. The tentative deal includes Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two Islamic movements known for suicide bombings, and the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed faction of the mainstream Fatah party headed by Yasser Arafat.
A cease-fire would be an important step in advancing an American-backed peace plan and could lead to an Israeli military withdrawal from much of the Gaza Strip.
"It's one thing to make a verbal agreement," Bush told reporters in Washington after word of the apparent cease-fire became public. "But in order for there to be peace in the Middle East, we must see organizations such as Hamas dismantled."
Of the agreement, Bush said: "I'll believe it when I see it."
Qadura Faris, a Palestinian legislator who participated in the negotiations, said militant leaders in Damascus, Syria - Khaled Mashal of Hamas and Ramadan Shalah of Islamic Jihad - signed a case-fire agreement. Also agreeing to its terms were representatives of Fatah in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Palestinian officials said yesterday that the cease-fire agreement included a moratorium on attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians living inside Israel as well as in settlements in the West Bank and in Gaza.
But the same officials said the agreement calls for Israel to stop targeting militant leaders for assassination and to end military forays into Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, conditions Israeli leaders have already rejected.
Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian legislator, said the cease-fire accord is not conditional on Israel reining in its army. "The road map calls for both sides to end violence," he said. "Both sides have to bring quiet."
Sharon told a parliamentary committee Tuesday that he would continue to order airstrikes on Palestinian militants who are on their way to commit attacks, even in areas returned to Palestinian control.
"If the Palestinians take security responsibility for an area, they will be responsible for maintaining the cease-fire and will have to act to eliminate terror," he said. "If we identify an intention to commit a terror act, we will demand they take immediate action to foil it. But if they don't do so, we will act on our own."
Sharon and his aides have repeatedly criticized attempts by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate a halt to the violence instead of confronting the groups head-on. This week, a senior Israeli army officer for the West Bank and Gaza, Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, told Israeli Radio that a cease-fire was "a threat to peace" and would lead to "murder on a wider scale."
In its missile attack yesterday in Gaza, Israeli targeted Mohammed Seyam, a local leader of Hamas who was riding in a white Peugeot. Doctors said they had to amputate one of his legs. They also reported that two people, a man and a woman, were killed as they sat in the back of a taxi. At least 17 others were wounded.
The Israeli army has targeted Hamas in the past two weeks, firing missiles at one of its senior leaders, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, wounding him, and killing others in a series of later strikes in Gaza and in the West Bank city of Hebron. Hamas responded to the attempt on Rantisi with a suicide bomb aboard a bus that killed 17 people.
Rantisi dismissed reports of a cease-fire in an interview with the Associated Press yesterday. "In the coming days we will have an answer," he told the news agency. "Israeli terrorist actions will be taken into account when we decide."
Some Palestinian officials have said that a significant snag in the cease-fire talks has been Israel's reluctance to promise an end to the targeted killings.