Hamas may agree to cease-fire today

Hamas yesterday said it would announce its stand on a hudna - a tactical cease-fire - probably today. Ismail Abu Shnab, a leader of the movement in Gaza who is close to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, said: "There is no final answer yet," but the leadership had promised Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas an answer as soon as possible, and this apparently would be forthcoming today.

Officials in the Palestinian government and Hamas emphasized that most of the issues involved in the cease-fire deal have been summarized, with the duration of the truce the only outstanding issue. While PA officials and Egyptian mediators want as lengthy a truce as possible, Hamas is seeking an "open-ended cease-fire" that can be ended at any time. Despite that dispute, Hamas sources say the announcement expected today will be positive.

At the Erez junction yesterday, there was another security coordination session with Israeli, Palestinian, and American officials. According to Palestinian sources, unlike previous meetings last week and since where the sides argued in the media but reached no results, yesterday's meeting was "positive" and dealt with the possibility of opening the Salah a in Road, which travels the length of Gaza, without any Israeli intervention on the road.

Opening the road was also discussed in the context of renewing the joint patrols along the roads near the settlement of Kisufim, at the entrance to Gush Katif, and in the Morag and Netzarim areas.

A Palestinian security source said "we encountered a different American position than in the past. They are now taking into consideration our demands. If the army's checkpoints on the Salah a Din Road are lifted, we can move forward."

Meanwhile, three members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade were killed in northern Gaza, with the Palestinians blaming an Israeli tank shell and Israel denying it was involved.

Despite the apparent progress toward an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and the terror groups, Israeli officials expressed skepticism that a truce can be achieved in the near future, as well as about the content of the agreement.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday said Israel would not agree to an internal Palestinian agreement that replaces a war on terror, and that the only arrangement acceptable to Israel is one in which the terror organizations are disarmed.

Even if a hudna is achieved, there are many obstacles remaining on the way to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on transferring security responsibility from the IDF to the PA's security forces. The leading obstacle as to do with who controls the main road from Gaza City to Rafah. Israel insists that it continue to hold the military outposts at the Netzarim junction and the in the Kfar Darom and Gush Katif area. And it wants Palestinian traffic diverted away from those areas to the coastal road.

The defense establishment believes the cease-fire being hammered out will not be acceptable to Israel. An IDF source last night said, "the PA is not interested in accepting security responsibility and is doing everything it can to avoid it."

They said that as long as no deal is worked out with the PA, Israel would continue its own war on the terrorist groups, including arrests and assassinations of "ticking bombs."
Burns to Israel

As part of Washington's efforts to keep a close eye on events on the ground here, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs William Burns is due in Israel and the PA after the Jordan economic summit.

He will remain at least until the arrival of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who is due to arrive on Saturday night.