Olmert denies rumors of truce

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- A senior Israeli official and leaders of Gaza militant groups have held talks with Egyptian officials in recent days, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel denied yesterday that Israel was engaged in talks to broker a truce, despite several days of relative quiet near the Gaza border.

Olmert said, however, that if the militant groups halted their rocket fire and the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, "Israel will have no reason to fight the terrorists there."

Representatives of the groups in Gaza said they were trying to create a calm atmosphere to give Egypt a chance to broker a more comprehensive deal between the warring sides.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas added to the speculation about an emerging understanding, saying he believed that Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, were "agreed in principle" on terms for a truce.

Hamas "wants to protect its leaders and those of Islamic Jihad from the Israelis, and I think Israel agrees on that or has already agreed," Abbas was quoted by the official Palestinian news agency, WAFA, as saying yesterday after talks in Jordan with King Abdullah II.

The comments came after a three-day lull in hostilities in and around Gaza. No rockets were launched against Israel from Gaza yesterday, and only a few were fired over the weekend, all toward open, unpopulated areas, an Israeli army spokeswoman said. The last military strike in Gaza, against a group of armed men, occurred late Friday night, she said.

Hundreds of rockets and mortar shells were fired at Israel during a surge in hostilities in late February and early March, and more than 120 Palestinians, many of them civilians, were killed in an Israeli air and land campaign against the rocket launching squads. Four Israeli soldiers and an Israeli civilian were killed by Palestinian fire.

Ahmed Yousef, an adviser to the Hamas leadership in Gaza, said yesterday that all the militant groups there were abiding by a temporary lull to give Egyptian officials a chance to "reach a comprehensive agreement that will deal with all the issues." Those issues, he said, include the possibility of a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas, the opening of the passages on Gaza's borders with Egypt and Israel, which have largely been closed, and a longer-term lull in violence.

In the past, when Hamas refrained from firing rockets against Israel, it allowed other groups, like the smaller Islamic Jihad, to continue firing.

But leaders from Hamas and Islamic Jihad were in Egypt for talks with Egyptian officials late last week, and a leader of Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Khaled al-Batsh, said yesterday that his group had also "accepted an Egyptian request for a calm atmosphere" toward a broader deal.

An American envoy was recently in Egypt for talks, and a senior Israeli defense official, Amos Gilad, met with Egyptian officials in Cairo on Sunday.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert, said yesterday that Israel was "interested in engaging with the Egyptians" to create a situation where the entry of weapons and munitions into Gaza from the Egyptian Sinai "will cease."

But Olmert said yesterday that the Israeli army retained full freedom of action in Gaza. "There is no agreement and there are no negotiations, either direct or indirect," he said at a news conference.

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