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Hamas, Fatah and 10 other Palestinian groups meet today near Cairo for formal hudna (cease-fire) talks mediated by Egyptian Intelligence Affairs Minister Omar Suleiman. However, Israeli defense sources said some Palestinian groups were trying to step up terrorist activities ahead of any cease-fire accord.

Yesterday, a combined effort by police, Shin Bet and the army foiled a planned suicide bombing at a Yokne'am school.

Senior Palestinian sources yesterday said the Egyptians, who convened the conference, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, want to achieve an agreement for a cease-fire for a specific time that the Palestinian Authority will enforce. They said much depends on guarantees provided by Israel to cease IDF arrests, assassinations and shootings in areas from which the army will eventually withdraw in the West Bank and Gaza.

Jibril Rajoub, the National Security Advisor to Yasser Arafat, is already in Cairo, having gone there straight from the Geneva Accord ceremony on Monday. Also in Cairo is Hamas delegation leader Mussa Abu Marzuk.

Despite Israeli-Egyptian contacts about the talks, it is still not clear if Israel will agree to become an official party to a cease-fire which, Israeli officials argue, will be mere cover for Palestinian organizations to regroup and prepare for more terrorism.

Nonetheless, there appears to be a growing consensus among Palestinian groups to give Qureia a green light for a cease-fire so he can try to achieve some political gains from the Israelis. Palestinian sources said that in addition to the cease-fire, Qureia will present Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with a series of other steps the PA will take, such as sealing smuggling tunnels in Rafah, collecting illegal weapons, and arresting elements who refuse to observe the hudna.

Palestinian sources say Qureia has stopped posing preconditions for a meeting with Sharon and now is seeking American guarantees for promises made by Sharon. Qureia wants a resumption of road map monitoring by U.S. special envoy John Wolf or other officials. He wants guarantees on the security level for coordinating efforts against terror, as well as on the political level, for the evacuation of illegal outposts and settlements construction freeze.

Terror attempts

Meanwhile, the defense establishment says terror groups are trying to step up their efforts to launch attacks on Israel before the cease-fire goes into effect. In the last two days the security forces foiled four separate terror plots, including an Islamic Jihad plot for a suicide bombing in a Yokne'am school. Troops arrested a 23-year-old Gazan who had been living in Jenin for several years on his way to carry out the bombing.

The man was arrested in the village of Bardele and had an explosives belt ready for use. Another Palestinian, who was apparently serving as a guide for the planned attack, was also arrested.

The arrest came after a long, tense day in which police clamped roadblocks on most of the northern roads, and people in the Beit She'an area were told to stay home after an arrest operation in Jenin yielded information that the Islamic Jihad had set in motion a suicide bombing inside Israel. The two men intended to bomb a school in Yokne'am.

The IDF said it was the first time Palestinians are known to have deliberately targeted Israeli children. The two told investigators they decided to infiltrate Israel from the West Bank, via the northern Jordan Valley, because the separation fence has not yet been built in this region.

After the arrests security forces ended the high alert that has lasted throughout the day around Afula and the Beit She'an valley. Roadblocks had been set up in the area and police checked every vehicle passing through.

The security sources say Islamic Jihad and some rogue cells of Tanzim are mostly responsible for the latest attempts to strike Israeli targets. In both cases funding for the operations and instructions about them are coming from overseas, the sources say, and Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon are believed to be behind the plots.

According to Israeli sources, Keis Obeid, an Israeli Arab who defected to Hezbollah and who has been named as being involved in the kidnapping of Elhanan Tannenbaum, is a key contact between Hezbollah and Palestinian cells in the territories.

More arrests

In other developments, troops arrested a wanted Tanzim member in Qalqiliyah, and four armed Palestinians traveling were arrested in a car near the village of Yatta, south of Hebron. Troops also neutralized a 7-kilogram bomb on Wednesday near the West Bank settlement of Itamar. The device was discovered by a Palestinian man who reported it to soldiers.

Also in the West Bank, the army lifted a key checkpoint between Ramallah and the village of Surda, which opened the way for all the villages in the Ramallah area to reach the city without passing through roadblocks. Two other checkpoints were lifted in the Halhoul area, making traffic between the area north of Hebron and south of Bethlehem easier for Palestinians.

An IDF officer was moderately wounded late Tuesday night in the Gaza Strip. The tank the officer was commanding developed a technical fault as it patrolled south of the Kfar Darom settlement. Palestinians fired at him when he got out of the tank to examine the problem. The officer was treated at Soroka Hospital in Be'er Sheva.

On Tuesday, IDF troops thwarted a terror attack when they came across another large explosive device close to Tul Karm, near the Green Line. Details of the incident were only released for publication yesterday.

Army Radio meanwhile quoted Palestinian sources saying yesterday that contrary to previous reports, Hamas military wing commander Ibrahim Hamad was killed earlier this week in Ramallah when the army blew up a building, and his body had been found in the rubble. The army had rolled into Ramallah on Monday, mainly to search for him.

In Israel, a 17-year-old Israeli Arab was accused in Tel Aviv District Court yesterday of conspiring with a Hamas activist and expressing a willingness to help get a Hamas suicide bomber inside the country.

The youth was charged with conspiring to aid the enemy during war, aiding the enemy during war - he bought bottles of acetone knowing the chemical would be used for a Hamas bomb - and contact with a foreign agent.