Tuesday 22 February 2005

Time is running out, militant warns

Fragile calm will shatter if Mideast peace process stalls, Fatah fighter says

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Special to The Globe and Mail

GAZA CITY -- Abu Thaer is a hunted man. He wears a hood and carries a Kalashnikov assault rifle. He meets at secret locations through trusted intermediaries. He says his proudest moment was a deadly suicide bombing in Jerusalem in January of 2004, in which 10 bus passengers were killed.

Abu Thaer commands the Ayman Judeh cell, the Gaza City chapter of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the militant wing of Fatah, named after a former leader who was killed in an Israeli helicopter missile strike in January, 2004.

For now, the group has agreed to a period of "calm" so that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas can try to restart the Middle East peace process. But time is running out. Abu Thaer accuses Israel of violating the fragile ceasefire and says his patience is nearly ended.

"We committed to continue the calm for four to six months, on condition that the Israeli government is committed to calm the situation on all fronts," he said in an exclusive interview at a Gaza City safe house.

"The Israelis are breaking this commitment, daily and continuously. We are not going to be very patient if they continue doing this. It's impossible to see the blood of our people and to remain silent."

Men like Abu Thaer and his colleagues will determine the future of the fragile new calm, and probably also the fate of Mr. Abbas's administration. If they decide the Israelis or their new leader are not moving fast enough and renew their mortar, rocket and suicide attacks on Israel, the new-found hope in the Middle East could unravel quickly.

Israel denies it has violated the ceasefire, hammered out at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit two weeks ago. On the contrary, Israeli officials say, hundreds of Palestinian workers and merchants are once again being allowed across the border to work in Israel, and yesterday, 500 Palestinian prisoners were released amid scenes of widespread joy.

Ten of the released prisoners went home to Gaza, where they were escorted by a convoy of cars flying the yellow flags of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and trucks crowded with men firing their Kalashnikovs into the air in celebration.

Israel plans to release another 400 prisoners and has begun preparations to withdraw all settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in July.

But Abu Thaer wants more.

"We have given Abu Mazen a chance to calm the situation and we have laid down conditions so in the future we will be able to achieve a hudna or ceasefire," he said, using Mr. Abbas's popular nom de guerre.

Those conditions include the formal announcement by both sides of a ceasefire, which Israel has not yet made, and a commitment to release all 7,500 Palestinian prisoners still held in Israeli jails.

"We have accepted what Abu Mazen has done in small steps and welcomed it, but we want the release of all prisoners. I repeat: all of them," he said.

The Palestinian leader will have to persuade Israel that the release of all the prisoners will not swell the ranks of the militants. But that is not the only fight on his hands. Mr. Abbas must also persuade his own people, including men like Abu Thaer, that he is a strong leader.

Abu Thaer and his men say they voted for Mr. Abbas because of his promise to reform the corruption-riddled Palestinian Authority and they will insist on those reforms if he is to retain their support.

But yesterday, Mr. Abbas failed to win approval for his new cabinet after the Palestinian Legislative Council argued that several "corrupt" ministers remained after an extensive government reshuffle.

Mr. Abbas has also proposed that militants from the al-Aqsa Brigades and their counterparts in Hamas and Islamic Jihad be incorporated into the official Palestinian security services who are now deployed throughout the Gaza Strip, with the specific mission of halting attacks by those groups.

But a straw poll of Abu Thaer and six of his comrades showed little support for that option. While the men said they support the deployment and the new sense of security it has brought to ordinary Palestinians, only three of the seven said they would join the official security forces, and then only after a final peace treaty was signed with Israel.

"Resistance will continue as long as the occupation continues," said Abu Thaer, insisting that Israel must also quit the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

"We are brothers, we are partners in our homeland. If the Israeli violations continue, a son of the Palestinian Authority will not stand against the sons of the people here. He will stand beside the resistance, to defend the sons of his people."

But Abu Thaer said that for the first time, he saw some hope of peace emerging after four years of violence and bloodshed.

"I heard [U.S. President] George Bush say he has a vision for peace of two states. We hope that he will achieve what he is talking about. It's up to the Israeli government. If they are serious about peace, they have to evacuate all settlements and withdraw completely from all Palestinian land.

"We do see a change in the Israelis. We do not know how far this change goes, but we are hopeful. Maybe it will lead to peace, to George Bush's vision."

Monday 21 February 2005

Israeli cabinet agrees to Gaza withdrawal

Monday, February 21, 2005 - Page A1

Special to The Globe and Mail

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signed a historic decree last night ordering Israeli settlers to quit the Gaza Strip by July 20.

Earlier yesterday, the Israel cabinet voted 17-5 in favour of a complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank.

The vote came after Israel's approval last week of a financial compensation package for departing settlers.

The Israeli cabinet also approved a more controversial measure: a new route for the so-called security barrier in the West Bank, but one that encompasses more than 6 per cent of West Bank land, including the large Jewish settlement blocs of Gush Etzion and Maaleh Adumim, both near Jerusalem.

"Israel is creating facts on the ground in the West Bank," Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said. "Sharon wants payback in the West Bank for the disengagement from Gaza, particularly Jerusalem."

The route, changed after intervention by the Israeli High Court, brings the barrier closer to the old Green Line border, but will still leave about 7 per cent of the West Bank and 10,000 Palestinian residents on the Israeli side.

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat warned that Israel's insistence on building the barrier "will undermine efforts being exerted to revive the peace process."

Mr. Sharon described the decision to evacuate the settlements as "a vital step for the future of the state of Israel.

"I am convinced that the step which was taken today is the right one in ensuring the future of Israel as a Jewish democratic state," he said.

The vote came amid growing signs of hope in the age-old conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours. For the first time, an Egyptian newspaper published an interview with Mr. Sharon, and Jordan returned its ambassador to Tel Aviv after a four-year absence. Egypt has also named its new ambassador.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said his people would bid farewell to the Israeli occupiers with "flowers."

The militant Hamas group hailed the disengagement decision as a victory, calling it the "fruit of Palestinian resistance."

Israel also announced it would release a first group of 500 Palestinian prisoners today and allow several exiles to return to the West Bank.

A group of 16 suspected Palestinian militants banished to Gaza were welcomed back to Ramallah by Mr. Abbas yesterday.

"This is the beginning of the freedom of all the Palestinians who were transferred to Gaza and outside of Palestine," Mr. Abbas told them.

"Our agreement with Israel is to bring all of you back, and I think in the next two weeks everyone will be able to come to their homes. We promised our people that you would come back and that has happened," he said.

Yesterday's cabinet vote was the first time Israel has agreed to remove permanent settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The Israeli decision comes two weeks after a summit meeting between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas, which ended the four-year intifada.

About 7,000 settlers in 18 communities, the oldest of them established in 1972, and a large army garrison will quit the Gaza Strip, leaving the area completely under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

Four settlements in the northern West Bank will also be abandoned.

Settler leaders vowed to mount a defiant, but non-violent, struggle against the decision.

"We have reached the day where we now have to gather everyone together to fight against this law, and we must do it in such a way that it is not violent and that no one will raise their hand against a soldier or police officer," settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein said. "It is a difficult struggle. We must wreck the implementation of this law and do everything we can to ensure that this law will not be enacted."

"This will not be an easy day, nor will it be a happy day," Mr. Sharon told the cabinet before the vote.

"The evacuation of communities from Gaza and northern Samaria is a very difficult step. It is difficult for the residents, for the citizens of Israel and for me, and I am certain that it is difficult for the members of the cabinet."

The five ministers opposing the withdrawal were led by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Sharon's main rival for the leadership of the Likud Party.

"I believe that a national referendum is the only thing that can stop the division that is tearing apart our people," Mr. Netanyahu said. "I am voting according to my conscience against the plan since it is not being accompanied by a decision to hold a national referendum."

Monday 14 February 2005

Mideast training program backfires Palestinian security officers schooled by U.S. later used tactics against Israel

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Monday, February 14, 2005

Page A - 1

Bethlehem, West Bank -- In June 1998, somewhere near CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., two rows of men in military fatigues posed for their graduation photo.

All of them were officers in Palestinian General Intelligence Service, charged with hunting down terrorists and preventing attacks on Israel. They had just completed a training course, paid for by the U.S. government, in which they learned firearms and counterterrorist tactics.

But the graduation photo holds a stark warning for the Bush administration as it gets more involved in Middle East peacemaking. Some of the men in the picture later swapped sides and began using the skills they learned in Virginia against the Israelis.

Such training courses, which were suspended with the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, will be an integral part of Washington's aid package for the new government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

"There will need to be some international effort, and the United States is prepared to play a major role in that, to help in the training of the Palestinian security forces and in making sure that they are security forces that are part of the solution, not part of the problem," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said earlier this month on the London stop of her European tour.

Lt. Gen. William Ward, Rice's newly named Mideast security coordinator, will visit the region this month to "start looking at how to build Palestinian security forces," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday.

"What we're really all talking about is helping the Palestinian security forces get organized, get equipped, get trained and get the command structure that allows them to take care of security problems," Boucher said.

The men in the 1998 photo came from Bethlehem, Jericho and Nablus, which all became flash points in the four-year uprising, called the intifada. Kneeling fourth from the left in the front row is Raafat Bajali. In December 2001, Bajali was killed when a bomb he was making blew up in his face. He had become a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the militant wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said some of his comrades in the General Intelligence unit.

Bajali died in a fourth-floor apartment near Bethlehem's Manger Square, the home of Nedal Zedok, a colleague in the Palestinian security forces who also was moonlighting for Al-Aqsa. Zedok, too, was killed in the explosion.

Standing in the back row, second from the left, is Khaled Abu Nijmeh, from Deheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, according to two of his colleagues who are also pictured.

By 2001, he had become one of the most-wanted Palestinian militants in the city, suspected of involvement in a string of suicide bombings and shooting attacks against Israelis. In May 2002, he was one of 13 gunmen escorted from the Church of the Nativity siege in Bethlehem, flown to Cyprus and then to exile in Europe. Three of the group, including Abu Nijmeh, were given asylum in Italy.

"I am a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and a first sergeant in Palestinian General Intelligence," Abu Nijmeh, now 36, told The Chronicle from his temporary home in Rome. "I personally received a course in antiterrorism and VIP protection.

"I was not alone. Many Palestinian security people were trained by the Americans. We hope they will continue helping us."

Abu Nijmeh and his 12 comrades will be allowed to return to Bethlehem under the cease-fire agreement reached last week between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israeli warnings

As Israeli commentators had been warning for years, the CIA inadvertently helped train future adversaries -- as it has done in other countries, including the anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan who ended up as Taliban and al Qaeda militants.

"This has proven to be a very risky undertaking," said Israeli political analyst Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University. "Both the CIA and British efforts to train Palestinians during the Oslo process helped strengthen terrorist capabilities."

A U.S. official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said that if previous U.S. aid went to train would-be militants, "obviously steps will be taken so that any future training does not lead to a similar outcome."

The Palestinian security forces were created in the aftermath of the 1993 Oslo accords by Arafat to maintain order in newly autonomous Palestinian territories. The recruits were supposed to serve as the police force for the Palestinian Authority and to prevent terrorist attacks against Israel. The CIA and British intelligence services helped provide training and equipment.

But Arafat also used the new police forces to keep himself in power. Based on longtime loyalties within his Fatah political faction, he created 14 separate, often overlapping, security services -- including a naval intelligence unit in the landlocked West Bank.

Palestinian security forces were doubling as militants in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and in Hamas, an Islamic group that has claimed credit for many anti-Israel attacks. Zedok, who was killed by Bajali's bomb, was among those dismissed from the security force after their connections were exposed by Israel. Others, including the Al-Aqsa founder and commander in Ramallah, Khaled al-Shawish, found refuge in Arafat's West Bank headquarters.

Clinton connection

The training given to hundreds of Palestinian security officials between 1996 and 2000 was sanctioned by a presidential order in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton, who was deeply involved in peace-making efforts.

The order created a covert program that provided tens of millions of dollars to enhance the professionalism of the Palestinian security services and help combat anti-Israel terrorism. Under the arrangement, CIA contractors trained the Palestinians in firearms, counterterrorism, interrogation techniques and bureaucratic organization. The Palestinian graduates in the photo were instructed by International Training Inc., a private security- training firm that does contract work for the CIA.

The United States, the European Union and Britain also provided advanced radio communications systems, computers, vehicles and other equipment.

In October 1998, the Wye Plantation agreement -- hammered out between Clinton, Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a summit in rural Maryland -- formalized the assistance provided by the CIA to Palestinian security, in cooperation with a special security adviser appointed by the European Union, a British former intelligence officer named Alastair Crooke. It was Crooke who escorted Abu Nijmeh and the 12 other exiles from Bethlehem to Cyprus in May 2002 while CIA officers cleared Palestinian weapons from the Church of the Nativity, officials involved in the operation said.

Even before the intifada broke out in 2000, the Israeli government was becoming concerned about the inadvertent help to Palestinian militants. In November 1999, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak asked Washington to scale back its assistance to the Palestinian security forces.

"In recent conversations with senior U.S. officials, Israeli representatives expressed their concerns about the risk that sensitive information on antiterror methods and antiterror technology would be passed from the Palestinian Authority on to terror groups," the Israeli daily Haaretz reported at that time.

"The American aid to the Palestinians carries a great danger, because it is impossible to know exactly what the Palestinians are receiving, or who ultimately receives it," a Barak aide told Haaretz.

The Israeli warning was borne out by the graduation photo. Bajali and Abu Nijmeh, the two Al-Aqsa members, were not unusual in combining service in the Palestinian security forces with activity in an underground militia. When the Church of the Nativity siege ended in May 2002, Abu Nijmeh was just one of several security officers among the 13 men deported to Europe and 26 more banished from the West Bank to Gaza.

Among his colleagues when he joined General Intelligence, "there were five or six who were deported abroad and another 10 (from the West Bank) to Gaza," said one Palestinian officer pictured in the photo of the Class of 1998, who still is in the security forces and asked that his name not be used.

CIA session

The certificate -- complete with gold-leaf seal -- that the 1998 graduates received from International Training Inc. refers only to an "antiterrorist driving and motorcade operations" course. But the CIA-sponsored session provided firearms training as well, the officer and other participants in the course who spoke to The Chronicle confirmed. "They trained us on pistols and MP5 machine guns," said the officer. "There were fixed targets and moving targets in front of us."

He said the training was shrouded in tight secrecy, and in a manner that foreshadowed future problems.

"We arrived in Washington, then they took us in another plane," he said. "We were in Virginia for a day or two, then they took us to a military base where they trained us.

"I was shocked by one thing -- when they put us on the plane, its windows were blackened," he said. "And when they put us on a bus, the windows were covered. I asked our escort, 'Why have you covered the windows of the bus and the airplane?'

"He replied, 'For the moment we are friends, but we could also become enemies. It's not in our interest to show you the security bases.'

Saturday 12 February 2005

Abbas to push militants to stick to ceasefire

Saturday, February 12, 2005 - Page A13

Special to The Globe and Mail, with a report from AP

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK -- Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas left for the Gaza Strip last night to push militants to adhere to the fragile ceasefire with Israel, while the focus of international peacemaking shifted to next month's reconstruction conference.

Mr. Abbas plans to meet with members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad today in an effort to enforce the ceasefire he reached with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last week in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. But the militants insisted that they will stop their attacks only when they are satisfied that Israel will stop pursuing them and release Palestinian prisoners.

"Hamas still wants a truce, but needs this truce to be with Israeli obligations," spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

Israel has pledged to cease all its military activity against all Palestinians everywhere, and vowed to release 900 of the 8,000 Palestinian prisoners it is holding. But Hamas and Islamic Jihad say they are withholding approval of the agreement.

Mr. Abbas fired dozens of Palestinian senior security officials in Gaza this week for failing to stop a barrage of mortars on Jewish settlements. Israeli officials praised the move, but warned yesterday they have limited patience for such violence. "We still have a policy of restraint and civilian gestures in order to strengthen [Mr. Abbas], but it must be remembered this won't last forever," deputy defence minister Zeev Boim told Israel Radio.

As the sides work to sort out the truce on the ground, the diplomatic focus is turning toward London, where international donors are to meet March 1 to discuss how to rebuild the shattered Palestinian economy.

The meeting, organized by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, will also look at ways to bolster the Palestinian security forces, whose equipment and buildings have been devastated by Israeli attacks during the 4-year intifada.

"We want to use that meeting to help the Palestinians build the institutions which they will need to build in turn and to govern a viable state, and we want to help Abu Mazen and his ministers respond effectively to Israel's disengagement from Gaza and the four settlements in the West Bank," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said yesterday, referring to the Palestinian leader by his nom de guerre.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew announced this week that he will attend the London conference, where he will join U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and counterparts from the European Union, several Arab states and other senior officials from the international community.

Israeli officials said yesterday that although they support the conference, they will not attend.

"We wish the conference every success and we will help to implement its decisions where we can, but we do not think it is appropriate for us to be there physically," an aide to Mr. Sharon said.

In preparation for the conference, the Palestinian Authority has drawn up a thick dossier setting out its needs for the next three years.

The dossier was drawn by the Palestinian finance ministry and ministry of planning in consultation with the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program. It calls for $1.5-billion (U.S.) in international aid each year. One-third of the money is to come from the United States, but Canada, Russia and European Union countries have also been given the dossier.

Palestinian officials said this week that Mr. Pettigrew has offered to accommodate senior Palestinian police officers on RCMP training courses, either in Canada or the Palestinian territories.

"The Canadians in the past did play an active role in this field, and I'm pretty sure that we do need their assistance and I'm pretty sure that they will have a role to play in the future -- either in the issue of reorganizing or supplying with equipment to the security services or in other fields," said General Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian National Security Council.

Mr. Pettigrew also discussed Canadian assistance in children's development, judicial reform and improving local government.

Friday 11 February 2005

Militants aim to destroy Mideast truce

Friday, February 11, 2005


Ramallah, West Bank - Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas fired three senior security commanders yesterday and sent a stern message to those trying to sabotage the Palestinian ceasefire with Israel, after militants fired a barrage of mortars at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli and U.S. officials praised Mr. Abbas for taking "an unprecedented step" in dismissing the three, members of former leader Yasser Arafat's old guard.

And both sides accused the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah of provoking the violence in order to disrupt the truce reached by Mr. Abbas and Israel's Ariel Sharon at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, this week.

"We know that orders have been issued from Lebanon for some parties to continue and not accept what happened [in Egypt]," one senior Palestinian official said.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew, who met both Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas yesterday as part of a weeklong trip to the region, told reporters that he will deliver a warning of his own to the governments of Lebanon and its patron Syria when he visits those countries today.

"The attempts by extremists trying to prevent and derail this very important progress have to stop," Mr. Pettigrew said in French after meeting Palestinian leaders in Ramallah. "I am going to tell the Syrians and the Lebanese that if you really want to help the Palestinians, you must reinforce the authority and the credibility of president Abbas in his determination to follow this path."

A Hezbollah spokesman denied this week that the group is trying to disrupt the calm. But Wednesday night, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah called for Palestinians to continue fighting. And during Mr. Pettigrew's meeting with Mr. Abbas at the muqata compound in Ramallah, senior Palestinian officials said they know the Lebanese-based group is pushing Palestinian militants to continue their uprising.

The official said Hezbollah is spending big moneyinducing militant groups to continue the violence, including yesterday's attacks, in which 50 mortar bombs and rockets hit settlements in Gaza. There were no casualties in the violence, which officials said was carried out by the Hamas organization.

Palestinian officials said those fired included Abdel-Razek al-Majaydeh, public security chief for the West Bank and Gaza; Palestinian Authority police chief Saeb al-Ajez; and Omar Ashour, commander of the security forces in the southern Gaza Strip. Six lower-ranking officials also lost their jobs.

Before Mr. Pettigrew left for Beirut, he told reporters yesterday that his meetings with Palestinian and Israeli leaders were very successful and constructive.

He said he has offered Canada's help in two key areas - border management and police training.

"We have developed in the last few years in North America, certainly on the Canadian side, great expertise in border management, where we had to accommodate security requirements of the United States post-Sept. 11, with a very fluid border where goods and people could cross," he said.

Perhaps the most unusual assistance Mr. Pettigrew handed to Palestinian officials was a gift of $750,000 from Canada's Jewish community, in the form of medical supplies for a children's hospital in the West Bank city of Hebron. The gift, funded by Walter Arbib of Toronto, was received enthusiastically by Mr. Abbas and his officials.

"We appreciate that gesture," deputy foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah said. "It has more value than the monetary value because it's coming from our cousins, the Jewish community in Canada."

Former NDP leader Alexa McDonough, who is travelling with the Foreign Minister as her party's foreign affairs critic, was effusive in her praise for Mr. Pettigrew's mission, which will have taken the delegation to Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories by the time it ends Saturday.

"... I will say that I really applaud Pettigrew's conduct. I think he had really acquitted himself extremely well on behalf of Canada and I felt really quite pleased to be associated with his very skillful diplomacy," she said last night in a telephone interview.

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.