GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad said Saturday they were adhering to a de facto truce with Israel, but stopped short of committing to the official cease-fire that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed on at their summit.
Israel agreed to repatriate about 55 Palestinians it deported to the Gaza Strip and Europe on terror accusations. The majority were exiled after a monthlong siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002.
In fast-paced moves to cement the truce, Israel said it will transfer control of the West Bank town of Jericho to Palestinians this coming week. As part of the cease-fire, Israel has pledged to return five West Bank towns — the others are Tulkarem, Qalqiliya, Bethlehem and Ramallah — to Palestinian control within three weeks.
Leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad met Saturday with Abbas, who is trying to keep the fragile cease-fire intact and end more than four years of fighting.
The two groups had already agreed to halt attacks before the cease-fire agreement at Tuesday’s summit in Egypt.
A Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, told The Associated Press the group will wait to see whether Israel stops its military activities and targeted killings of Palestinian militants before deciding whether to sign on to the official cease-fire.
Zahar, after meeting Abbas, said Hamas was “committed to what is called ‘quietness”‘ until it determines whether Israel meets its truce obligations, including disclosing the criteria for releasing Palestinian prisoners.
“Up to this moment, we are committed to the previous agreement with Mr. Abbas, and we are going to see how the Israelis” act, Zahar told the AP.
Hamas was behind dozens of suicide bombings and attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis. On Thursday, it upset the Sharon-Abbas truce by training dozens of rockets and mortars on Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
Though Israel gave no timetable for the return of the deported Palestinians, one of the exiles, Ghanem Sweilem, told reporters in Gaza City on Saturday that they expect to go home within a week or two.
“Today, we received good news that an agreement was reached with the Israeli side to allow us to return to our cities … each to his home, each to his city, within a short period of time,” said Sweilem, who was exiled from his home in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus more than two years ago.
The repatriation of the deportees is part of a larger dispute over the release of Palestinian prisoners. Israel has agreed to free 900 of the estimated 8,000 Palestinian prisoners, but the Palestinians want a broader release.
Five hundred of the 900 prisoners are expected to be released soon. A ministerial committee on prisoner releases is to meet Sunday, Israel Radio said.
Israel has also agreed to lift travel restrictions in parts of the West Bank and abandon several major checkpoints as part of the handover. That would be a major dividend from the cease-fire for ordinary Palestinians, because the restrictions have caused them severe economic hardship.
The cease-fire has coincided with renewed U.S. attempts to get an internationally backed Mideast peace plan known as the “road map” back on track.
The new U.S. security coordinator for the Middle East, Army Lt. Gen. William E. Ward, is to make his first trip to the region later this month.
In Munich, Germany, NATO’s top diplomat said Saturday the alliance should be ready to play a major role in supporting the peace efforts if asked. Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he planned to go to Israel next week, the first such visit by a NATO secretary-general.