Wednesday, 9 February 2005

Fresh start in Sharm el-Sheikh


NEW YORK DAILY NEWS Wednesday, February 9th 2005

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt and MAHMOUD HABBOUSH in Gaza City DAILY NEWS WRITERS With Kenneth R. Bazinet in Washington

THE LEADERS OF ISRAEL and the Palestinian Authority bridged four years of bitter violence with a historic handshake yesterday as they pledged to restart the peace process.

After Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reached over a table to grasp his hand, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared a new start for the two sides.

"The calm that will be witnessed in our territory starting today is the start of a new phase, a start of peace, hope," Abbas said. "Let us replace the language of bullets and bombs with good dialogue."

"For the first time in a long time, there is hope in our region for a better future for us and our grandchildren," Sharon said.

In Paris, a delighted Secretary of State Rice called the joint Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire pledge "the best chance for peace we are likely to see for years to come."

But in Israeli-occupied Gaza, Hamas militants whose suicide attacks sabotaged earlier attempts at ending the Palestinian intifadeh were doubtful about this one.

"This summit didn't meet the expectations of our people," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zohri told the Daily News. "We were expecting to see real pressure exerted on Israel."

Khader Habib, a leader of militant Islamic Jihad, added, "The Palestinian people wanted to hear much more than this."

In their first summit since the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat last year, the Palestinians agreed to stop attacks on Israelis, and Sharon called a halt to military operations.

The Egyptians and Jordanians pledged to return ambassadors to the Jewish state for the first time since September 2000, when an uprising erupted, leaving 3,350 Palestinians and 970 Israelis dead.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak praised the "new positive spirit" of the age-old enemies and urged them to take "urgent, serious and quick steps" to bring peace for their people. "It is a long and difficult path but we have started today," he said.

Outside, the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh was sealed off by soldiers, and police sentries manned checkpoints to prevent suicide attacks.

Both sides still have to hammer out the details of releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and declaring an amnesty for fugitive terrorist suspects.

Among the Israeli concessions is the suspension of its hunt for suspected terrorists; that development means the 13 Palestinians exiled to Europe after the Church of the Nativity siege in 2002 will be able to return home.

Q & A.

What's really new?
The Israelis and Palestinians are talking at the highest levels: Ariel Sharon and President Bush had refused to deal with the late Yasser Arafat. But both consider his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, a partner for peace.

What happened yesterday?

Sharon and Abbas met in Egypt and formalized what they called an end to hostilities. Sharon even invited Abbas to his ranch in the Negev desert.

Are the terrorists onboard?

No. But Abbas has expressed a willingness to crack down on them if there are new attacks. The true test will be how he reacts if there is new violence.

What's next?

Abbas and Sharon will meet with Bush at the White House, a powerful sign that America is engaged once more in bringing peace. Negotiators, meanwhile, will tackle the major stumbling blocks: settlements, the security wall, the Palestinian demand of "right of return" to land that is now Israel's, and the future of Jerusalem.

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