SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt (AP) – In a crucial step heralded as a fresh start to peacemaking, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promised Tuesday to halt all acts of violence and agreed to meet again soon to tackle the tougher issues that for decades have blocked the road to peace.
Even if their cease-fire pledge sticks, much negotiating lies ahead as the two sides work to rebuild the trust destroyed in four years of deadly attacks.
"What we agreed upon today is simply the beginning of the process of bridging the gap," Abbas said after his first face-to-face meeting with Sharon since succeeding Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian leader made clear the two sides have yet to wade into more fundamental issues, including control of Jerusalem and "the settlements, the release of prisoners, the wall."
The speeches by the two leaders at this Egyptian resort, broadcast live on Israeli and Arab television stations, were greeted with a mixture of hope and skepticism on a cold, rainy day back home. Many people said they would settle for modest improvements in their daily lives.
"We’ve gone from euphoria to extreme disappointment," said Shimrit Golan, an Israeli law student who lives in Jerusalem. "We’ll wait and see what happens."
"I hope the leaders are serious this time, because the future is dark," said Raed Omar, a university student in Gaza City.
The Hamas organization threw up an immediate roadblock, saying it was waiting to hear from Abbas and to see what Israel would do before committing to a halt in violence.
Yet the verbal cease-fire pledge and the sight of Abbas and Sharon grinning broadly as they shook hands across a summit table were the clearest signs yet of a new life for the peace process after Arafat’s death in November and Abbas’ election in January.
One Israeli official, Gideon Meir, said, "there was a great atmosphere in the talks … smiles and joking." In another sign the talks went well, Egypt and Jordan announced they would return their ambassadors to Israel after a four-year absence, possibly within days.
Emerging from private talks, Sharon promised that the Israeli military would stop attacks on Palestinians, and Abbas promised a halt in militant attacks on Israelis.
"[Israel] must move forward cautiously," Sharon said. "This is a very fragile opportunity that the extremists will want to exploit. They want to close the window of opportunity for us and allow our two peoples to drown in their blood. If we do not act now, they may be successful."
In the first reported violation, Palestinians shot at a car near a West Bank Jewish settlement after nightfall and fired and threw firebombs at soldiers who came to investigate. No one was hurt. The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, one of the militias of Abbas’ Fatah political organization, claimed responsibility.
Privately, Israeli officials made clear their halt in military operations depended on an end to Palestinian violence. And although they do not expect the Palestinian leadership to crack down on militants immediately, that must be done in the long-term, they said.
"At the end of the day, there should be disarming of these groups – no question about that," Meir said.
Abbas has deployed Palestinian forces throughout the Gaza Strip to stop militants from launching rockets at Israel in recent weeks, and is negotiating an agreement with Palestinian militants to halt suicide bombings, shootings and other attacks.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath traveled to Syria on Tuesday night and briefed its government on the summit. In Damascus, he said he also spoke to officials of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another Palestinian militant group.
"I am fully content that compliance with the cease-fire will be complete and comprehensive," Shaath told reporters later on his arrival in Beirut to brief the Lebanese government.
Asked earlier whether Hamas would continue attacks against Israel, the group’s representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, replied: "Our decision depends on the achievement of a substantial change (in Israel’s position) to meet Palestinian demands and conditions."
Hamdan said for a truce to be successful, Israel must release Palestinian prisoners and make a clear commitment to "halt all kinds of aggression against the Palestinian people." He contended those conditions were not met.
Across the world, the cease-fire breakthrough raised cautious hope.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed what she called a new will for peace in the region but said the Palestinians now must work strenuously to prevent violence. President Bush provided a boost of momentum on the summit’s eve by inviting both sides to separate talks at the White House this spring.
In London, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw pledged Britain would do all it could to help, but noted there had been "rather too many false dawns" in the long-running conflict. German Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer said in Berlin that "the renewed U.S. engagement is of central significance."
Just 20 months ago, Abbas stood next to Sharon at an international summit in Aqaba, Jordan, and called for an end to the Palestinian armed intefadeh. Yet less than three months later, violence had again broken out on both sides.
This time, the cease-fire agreement was accompanied by several concrete goodwill gestures.
Shaath said the leaders agreed that Israel would immediately free 500 Palestinian prisoners, to be followed by 400 more at a later stage.
Also, Israeli troops will complete their handover of five West Bank towns to Palestinian control within three weeks, Shaath said. Israeli and Palestinian security commanders are to meet Wednesday to prepare the handover of Jericho, the first West Bank town on the list of five.
The two sides also agreed to form a committee to work on the sticky issue of Palestinians wanted by the Israelis for past attacks. Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin said any agreement would include the Palestinians taking responsibility for monitoring the wanted men.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the summit’s host, said the agreement also might provide new life to progress on the Syrian-Israeli peace track, which has been stalled for years.
And Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said the summit could lead to diplomatic relations between Israel and other Arab nations, especially those in the Persian Gulf and North Africa.
In one of the most symbolic gestures out of the summit, Sharon invited Abbas to visit him at his ranch in Israel and Abbas accepted, Meir said.
Shaath said the visit would take place soon and be followed by other meeting. Talks by lower-level officials were to resume Wednesday.
"We have an opportunity to start on a new path for the first time in a long time," Sharon said.
The Israeli leader, in what he said was a direct address to the Palestinian people, said: "I assure you that we have a genuine intention to respect your rights to live independently and in dignity. I have already said that Israel has no desire to continue to govern over you and control your fate."
But in one West Bank coffee shop, most of the 50 customers did not look up from their card game during the broadcast. One man screamed "pig" every time he saw Sharon on television.
Israelis said they were hopeful that the era of suicide bombings and rocket attacks is finally over.
"I hope that she was the last victim, that she is looking down on us from heaven today as the last victim," said Yonatan Abukasis, whose 17-year-old daughter, Hela, died Jan. 21 from wounds suffered in a Palestinian rocket attack.
She was the last Israeli to be killed before Sharon and Abbas made their truce declarations.
-Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Lara Sukhtian, Salah Nasrawi and Sarah el-Deeb in Sharm el Sheik; Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah; Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City; and Josef Federman in Jerusalem.