JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israel has agreed in principle to let Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas send a security force loyal to him into Gaza, where a fragile truce is in effect, an Israeli diplomatic source said on Tuesday.
As part of efforts to bolster the moderate Palestinian leader, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet Abbas in the West Bank town of Jericho on Thursday, Palestinian officials said.
The request to redeploy the 1,000-strong Jordan-based Badr Brigade, the source said, came from Abbas, whose declaration with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday of a ceasefire in the tinderbox territory has stirred hopes of peace talks. “Basically, we have agreed, though it has not yet been officially released,” the source said. “The request came through before the ceasefire, but certainly this could boost the truce.”
A senior Abbas aide said full agreement was not yet secured. “We ehave asked, but we await the official and full details of the Israeli response,” negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters.
The United States, trying to salvage a tattered “road map” to peace, has signalled support for letting the brigade into Gaza or the occupied West Bank to reinforce Abbas’s men.
The brigade’s members hail from Abbas’s Fatah faction, trounced by Hamas Islamists in elections in January. The rival groups have since clashed on whether and how to engage Israel.
The Israeli diplomatic source gave no date for the Badr Brigade’s deployment in Gaza, which Israel quit in 2005. “It is likely to take some time,” a source close to the deliberations said.
Lieutenant-General Keith Dayton, the U.S. security coordinator in the region, told an Israeli newspaper last week the idea of redeploying the Badr Brigade “makes sense both from the military as well as from the political point of view”.
Olmert and Abbas are under growing U.S. pressure to show progress on ending decades of conflict. President George W. Bush and Rice are to arrive in Jordan on Wednesday and may address the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
A spokeswoman for Olmert said he had no talks planned with Rice, who will be attending a conference in Jordan. “The prime minister met with the secretary of state and the (U.S.) president two weeks ago (in Washington) … and there are no plans for an additional meeting,” the spokeswoman said.
In a major policy speech on Monday, Olmert offered to ease travel restrictions on Palestinians and free up frozen funds if violence against Israel ended. He repeated his readiness to give up some occupied land for an eventual peace agreement.
Abbas’s office said he “welcomed (Olmert’s) comments over returning to the negotiating table” based on a U.S.-backed peace “road map” charting reciprocal steps leading to the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
Olmert said in the speech, however, that peace talks must await formation of a Palestinian unity government, to replace the one now headed by Hamas.
Hamas’s rise to power prompted the West to impose an aid embargo on the Palestinians, with the demand that their new government renounce violence and recognise Israel.
Hamas, which advocates Israel’s destruction, has refused.
Hamas has created its own Gaza militia — dubbed the “Executive Force” and comprising 6,000 men — saying it is only for improving security in Gaza. Yet the buildup has stirred concern that a full-blown Hamas-Fatah showdown is imminent.
Following the weekend truce declaration, the Palestinian government posted thousands of police along the Gaza frontier with orders to prevent militants firing rockets into Israel.