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Groups resist signing on to truce

GAZA CITY -- The Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad said yesterday that they would not attack Israeli targets, but they refrained from officially joining a Palestinian cease-fire with Israel agreed upon at the summit meeting last week in Egypt.

Earlier, Israel agreed to repatriate all the Palestinians it deported to the Gaza Strip and Europe on terror accusations. The majority, 39 of 55, were exiled after a monthlong siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002.

In the moves to cement the truce, Israel said it would transfer control of the West Bank town of Jericho to the Palestinians this week. As part of the cease-fire, Israel has pledged to return the West Bank towns of Tulkarem, Qalqiliya, Bethlehem, and Ramallah to Palestinian control within three weeks.

Leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad met yesterday with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who is trying to keep the fragile cease-fire intact.

A Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, said the group would wait to see whether Israel stops its military activities, and targeted killings of Palestinian militants before deciding whether to join the truce agreed upon by Abbas and the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

Zahar said after meeting with Abbas that 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" will act, Zahar said.

Hamas, which opposes Israel's existence, pledged to Abbas that it would stop attacks against the Jewish state as part of a halt to violence by all militant groups. Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in four years of fighting.

The conditional accession of the militant groups to the overall truce, Israel's agreement to let the Palestinian return home and turn Jericho back to Palestinian control all furthered the momentum to a firm truce. But an Israeli government official gave no timetable for the return home of the deported exiles. One of the exiles, Ghanem Sweilem, told reporters in Gaza City yesterday that they expect to return 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 a refugee camp near Nablus more than two years ago.

The repatriation of the deportees is part of a controversy over the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Israel has agreed to free 900 of the estimated 8,000 Palestinian prisoners it is holding, but the Palestinians want a broader release and freedom for those imprisoned before the September 1993 peace accords.

About 500 of the 900 prisoners are expected to be released soon. A ministerial committee on prisoner releases is to meet today, 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.

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