Al Aqsa Brigades Spokesman Says Group Ready for Cease-fire

Says group will agree to truce if Israel pledges to halt attacks on Palestinians; IDF officer: Rockets, mortars nearly cease after Gaza raid.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group linked to the ruling Fatah party, will agree to a mutual cease-fire if Israel pledges to halt its attacks on the Palestinians and stop targeted killings of wanted Palestinians, the group's spokesman announced Saturday.

A masked Abu Mohammed, Al Aqsa's spokesman in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, made the announcement at a Gaza news conference. Flanked by gunmen, Abu Mohammed - using a nom-de-guerre - said the armed group would accept a truce "if it is mutual and if Israel also commits to it."

At the news conference, Abu Yusef - another Al Aqsa spokesman - said local leaders who made a similar announcement earlier Saturday were not authorized to speak for the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades has splintered during four years of violence and has no clear central leadership.

Abu Mohammed said Israel must agree, under the terms of a cease-fire, to release Palestinians prisoners from its jails.

"We think that all the factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad believe that this cease-fire must be mutual," Abu Mohammed said.

Earlier Saturday, Al Aqsa militants spoke at a separate Gaza City news conference, and said they were ready for a cease-fire with Israel.

The militants said they would agree to a truce, "but the Israeli government has to announce a comprehensive cessation to all military operations in our land."

IDF: Attacks almost cease due to Gaza raidsA mortar shell landed near an Israel Defense Forces position near the Gaza settlement of Neveh Dekalim on Saturday night, Israel Radio reported.

No injuries were reported.

A senior IDF officer said earlier Saturday that as a result of military operations in Gaza, the number of attacks in the past three days has drawn close to zero, Army Radio reported.

The officer also said there has been no mortar or rocket fire on Israeli towns during this time.

A security official suggested on Saturday that Israel could ease up on military operations against Palestinians if Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas achieves a cease-fire deal with militant groups.

"I would say in simple language that we would respond to quiet. If there is no reason to carry out a certain operation, we wouldn't do so," Giora Eiland, the head of the National Security Council told Israel Radio.

Abbas is negotiating a truce deal with militants in the Gaza Strip amid a lull in rocket and mortar fire and a new deployment of Palestinian security police.

Eiland also said he expected Abbas to disarm militants.

Report: Abbas instructs PA police to fire on militantsAbbas has instructed PA policemen to open fire on any Qassam launching militants in northern Gaza, Channel One reported Friday evening.

Palestinian security services on Friday finished deploying around 2,000 paramilitary police officers around the border towns Beit Hanun and Beit Lahia and other parts of northern Gaza, in an effort to prevent rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli targets.

Abbas said in a statement earlier on Friday that the PA will deploy security forces in the southern Gaza Strip within two days.

According to the Channel One report, Abbas also fired the Palestinian manager of the Karni border crossing in the central Gaza Strip, after an internal probe revealed he had aided militants in carrying out a terror attack which killed six Israeli civilians at the crossing last week.

The militants drove an explosive-laden truck into the Palestinian side of border crossing, and destroyed a wall separating it from the Israeli side by detonating it. After the wall was blown up, two suicide bombers entered the Israeli side of the crossing, set off their belts, and killed six Israeli workers.

U.S. to send Burns to the regionThe United States announced Friday it would send Assistant Secretary of State William Burns to the region to assess chances of serious peacemaking between Israel and Palestinian leaders.

Steps taken by Abbas to tighten security are reason for encouragement, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

"We have always stressed how important it is for the Palestinians to organize themselves to end the violence, and we welcome steps that are being taken in that direction," he said.

An agreement reached Thursday approved a deployment in the northern Gaza Strip alone, but the parties were said to be discussing further PA deployments in other parts of the strip.

The PA completed the deployment of security forces in the northern Gaza Strip on Friday, according to the statement issued by Abbas.

In Beit Hanun, armed policemen inspected vehicles and a squad in a jeep patrolled a nearby road leading to the Erez border crossing, witnesses said.

"Our orders are clear: to control these areas and to stop attacks," said Ismail al-Dahdouh, a senior Palestinian officer, after briefing a group of 100 security personnel.

But when asked what would happen if his men encountered militants en route to carrying out an attack, Dahdouh told Reuters "We will avoid clashing with them and we will talk to them in a positive way."

In response to the deployment, Vice Premier Shimon Peres told Israel Radio that Abbas' "initial steps are very impressive."

Moussa Arafat, head of the PA's National Security Service, presented the plan to IDF officers at a meeting at the Erez checkpoint on Wednesday night.

The deployment, which was approved Thursday by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, was coordinated with Israel to ensure that Israeli forces did not mistake the policemen for terrorists and open fire.

The agreement states that the two forces will maintain a distance of a few hundred meters between them.

Meanwhile, Abbas is continuing his efforts to pursuade militants to halt the attacks, thereby avoiding a confrontation between the PA and the militants.

"Talks with Hamas are positive and are continuing," Abbas' statement said. Aides close to the chairman said Abbas' has discussed with militant groups the need for restraint in order to ensure Israel implements a planned pull-out from the Gaza Strip.

The relative quiet in northern Gaza continued Thursday. For the second day in a row, no Qassams were fired at Sderot. The IDF attributes this quiet both to the PA's efforts - over the last 24 hours, Palestinian policemen have deployed in force in several cities and towns in Gaza where no agreement with the IDF was necessary - and to the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha. Palestinian sources also cited both of these factors as contributing to the quiet.

"The factions are waiting to see what Abbas has [to offer]," said a spokesman for the militant Popular Resistance Committees, also linking the lull to Id al-Adha, which ends on Sunday.

A Palestinian man was shot and lightly wounded by IDF gunfire near the village Salem, north of Jenin on Friday afternoon. The man was trying to damage the separation fence with an ax when he was shot.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who briefly broke off contacts with the new Palestinian leadership after the Karni attack in Gaza last week, sent greetings to Abbas on the occasion of a Muslim holiday.

"Abbas responded by saying he appreciated Sharon's kind wishes and urged him to work together to achieve peace for the Palestinians and the Israelis," Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said.

Jihad denies reports it struck cease-fire deal with AbbasSenior Islamic Jihad leader Mohammed al-Hindi said Friday that Israel would have to agree to the group's conditions, such as stopping attacks and raids and freeing Palestinian prisoners, before it would consider halting attacks against Israelis.

"We have said clearly and frankly that no cards can be given free for the Zionist enemy," he said. "Sharon wants to withdraw from Gaza in calm. If he wants calm, he has to pay the price."The militant group denied reports earlier Friday that it had agreed in principle with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to a cease-fire.

Meanwhile, Egypt will likely host a high-level meeting in Cairo in the coming days with Palestinian officials and Hamas leaders to finalize an agreement that could lead to a cease-fire, an official said Friday.

Israel reopening Rafah crossing into GazaIsrael was to reopen the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt in one direction Friday, enabling Palestinians to enter Gaza from abroad but not to leave, Israel announced Thursday. The crossing has been closed since December 12, when it was damaged in a Palestinian attack on a nearby army outpost that killed five soldiers. The prolonged closure has left thousands of Palestinians stranded on the other side.

The IDF also reopened the Gush Katif junction in Gaza on Thursday, though only until 3 P.M. The junction was closed for 24 hours following a Palestinian attack there that killed Oded Sharon, a Shin Bet security service officer.

Sharon, 36, was laid to rest Thursday in his hometown of Gan Yavneh.

In the West Bank, IDF troops operating in Ramallah arrested seven militants before dawn Friday, among them one Tanzim man, Army Radio reported.