Palestinian ceasefire plan lies buried in the rubble of Gaza

Stephen Farrell

Palestinian ceasefire plan lies buried in the rubble of Gaza

From Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem
London Time
July 24, 2002

WESTERN diplomats believe they were within hours of clinching an unprecedented Palestinian commitment to end suicide bombings when Israel launched its missile strike on Gaza on Monday night.

The Times has learnt that a Palestinian declaration containing an unconditional commitment to end suicide attacks on civilians was finalised hours before the attack. It was to have been made public yesterday but has now been postponed indefinitely.

Yesterday diplomats said they suspected the attack — which killed 14 Palestinians as well as the Hamas commander Sheikh Salah Shehada — was timed to wreck what might have been a breakthrough. Backed by senior leaders of Yassir Arafat's Fatah movement and the Tanzim, the Fatah wing most closely linked with the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the declaration contained a commitment to do everything in the militias' power to stop attacks on Israeli civilians, including settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.

International mediators involved in drafting the document, a copy of which has been seen by The Times, confirmed that two hours before the strike a very senior Fatah leader met Hamas leaders in Gaza to secure their support.

"Those directly involved in drafting the statement believe that this (attack) was a purposeful initiative on the part of the Israeli leadership to undermine what the Palestinians believed was the chance to stop the suicide bombs," one of the international officials involved in drafting the 1 -page declaration said.

"This was a very ham-fisted operation on the part of the Israelis. They were apparently desperate to short-circuit whatever they wanted to short circuit and obviously in the short term the chance of any such declaration is now gone. People on the street are angry."

Gideon Meir, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, insisted the strike was dictated by intelligence reports on Shehada's whereabouts at a precise time. F16s had tried to kill him three days earlier.

"The timing is nothing to do with politics. The decision to target this man was taken six months ago." He also dismissed talk of Hamas signing a deal.

" Hamas is dedicated to the elimination of the state of Israel. There is no ceasefire, there was no ceasefire."

The declaration is said to have arisen from a growing realisation among the militias that the suicide bombing campaign had caused huge damage to the Palestinian cause internationally, and was in danger of tearing Palestinian society apart by creating a cult of violence among the younger generation in the West Bank and Gaza.

A street-level initiative stitched together over the past two months with the help of a high-level European diplomat and an American who has worked with the Palestinian leadership for two decades, it is said to have the support of Mr Arafat, but was not initiated by him. However, it promised only a partial end to violence, leaving open the prospect of attacks on Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories. There would have been no signatures on the document.

It is also unclear whether attempts to bring Hamas on board would have been successful, although Hamas's spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, said on Monday that the Islamist group would consider halting suicide attacks if Israel pulled out.

Taisir Nasrallah, a senior Fatah official, said: "The militant factions were within a few days of releasing a statement calling for a partial ceasefire. This is unprecedented. Never before have all the factions and the militant wing agreed to sign a written statement."

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, also hinted at the imminence of a deal. Diplomats said he was aware of the secret plan. "I'm afraid that this is going to be more difficult after the events of last night," he said.

Mr Arafat denounced "a massacre that aborted an agreement to reach a ceasefire with Hamas".