Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to a transfer of security responsibility for portions of the Gaza Strip. The news comes just hours after Palestinian militants say they have agreed to a temporary ceasefire in their attacks on Israelis.
Under the agreement Israel will withdraw its forces from the northern Gaza Strip and be replaced by Palestinian police who will assume security responsibility. Israel will also ease travel restrictions along the main north-south road in the Strip as well as into Israel proper, making it possible for more Palestinians to go to jobs in Israel.
Israeli media report that another meeting between the two sides will be held Sunday to finalize details of the pullout which could come as early as Monday. No agreement has yet been reached on a transfer of authority for the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
News of the transfer agreement came after a series of discussions between Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan and General Amos Gilad, Israel's coordinator in the Palestinian areas.
Just hours before the announcement, the leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas said his group has agreed to institute a three-month ceasefire on all attacks against Israelis, demanding that Israel halt its attacks against them in return.
Sheikh Ahmed Yassin also said Hamas is in contact with Islamic Jihad and the militant wing of the Fatah movement in order to reach a joint formula all the groups would sign possibly on Sunday.
There has been no official Israeli reaction to the announcement but a senior Israeli official was quoted by the Ha'aretz newspaper as responding coolly to it, saying any truce signed by Hamas "is not worth the paper it's written on."
On Saturday, Israel Radio quoted an Israeli security source as saying that Israel will be free to continue fighting terror if the Palestinians fail to keep their side of the agreement.
Israeli leaders have said in the past that a temporary ceasefire could be used to allow the Palestinian groups to regroup and re-arm for further attacks once the period ends. It is believed that Israel may be willing to suspend its military operations and give the Palestinian Authority a chance to handle security issues, but reserves the right to respond if it feels the Palestinians are not taking effective measures against terror threats.
These two major developments come as President Bush's national security advisor Condolezza Rice arrives in the region in an effort to keep the latest peace efforts alive. She is to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday night and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday.