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Since 1st March, 1999
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Breakthrough on Israeli troop pullback
Palestinians carry the body of militants killed by Israeli troops during their funeral at Noseirat camp, Gaza Strip. (Reuters)

Gaza, June 27 (Reuters): Israel and the Palestinian authority reached an agreement in US-mediated talks today for an Israeli troop pullback in the Gaza Strip and West Bank city of Bethlehem, a Palestinian official said.

“An agreement has been reached on the issue of the withdrawal from Gaza and Bethlehem in the meeting that took place today between Israeli and Palestinian security officials,” said a Palestinian official, who declined to be identified.

US West Asia envoy John Wolf has been mediating the talks aimed at bolstering a peace “road map” affirmed at a West Asia summit on June 4.

“Implementation will begin on Sunday,” the Palestinian official said, hours after the Palestinian militant group Hamas announced that it had decided to suspend attacks on Israelis in a 33-month-old uprising for statehood.

There was no immediate Israeli confirmation but Israel’s state-owned Channel One television said a deal had been sealed and Israeli troops could start withdrawing from the two areas as early as Monday.

The announcement came on the eve of a visit to the region by US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who has been at the forefront of a diplomatic drive by the White House against Hamas, which Washington brands “an enemy of peace”.

The Palestinian official said both sides had agreed to open Gaza roads now controlled by the Israeli army except for a checkpoint near the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom, which would be removed once Israel saw the deal with working.

The official did not say what security measures Palestinian security forces would take in exchange for the troop pullback. He said Israel had promised to end “assassinations” — attacks on militants — and incursions in the two areas.

During several weeks of negotiations, Israel had called on the Palestinians to rein in militants in Gaza and Bethlehem in return for a withdrawal.

It said the two areas would be proving grounds for pullbacks from other occupied land.

Despite the reported progress in negotiations, Hamas’ military wing hinted at revenge for today’s Israeli raid, threatening to keep a cycle of attack and counter-attack spinning much to the frustration of US-led mediators.

Israeli troops surrounded the home of Adnan al-Ghoul, a reputed master Hamas bombmaker. Fighting erupted and helicopter gunships and tanks fired into the area, witnesses said.

Al-Ghoul’s 15-year-old son and 21-year-old nephew, both Hamas militants, were killed as well as an operative of the allied Islamic Jihad faction and a civilian in a nearby house.

Adnan al-Ghoul was not at home at the time, neighbours said.

If calm were restored in Gaza, security handovers could be extended to the West Bank. But that could take longer as local police forces have been smashed by army incursions and the West Bank, unlike Gaza, lacks a border fence bottling up militants.

The road map envisages a Palestinian state by 2005 in Gaza and the West Bank after Palestinians halt militant violence and Israel curbs Jewish settlement-building. Israel seized both territories in the 1967 West Asia war.

Israel and the US, main sponsor of the plan unfurled on June 4 but rapidly torn by bloodshed, say a truce is not enough and that armed groups must be dismantled to create a Palestinian state co-existing with Israel.

Condoleezza Rice urged European Union and Arab countries yesterday to sever funding for the political wing of Hamas.

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