Palestinian officials said yesterday they expect a positive response from Hamas on a truce with Israel soon, perhaps even by the end of the day, and Egyptian diplomatic sources said an announcement would be made in Cairo.
Leaders of the Islamic militant group shut off their phones or declined comment.
A truce is crucial for implementing a US-backed peace plan, the "road map" to Palestinian statehood by 2005. In the first stage, the Palestinians must dismantle militant groups, while Israel must gradually withdraw to positions held before the outbreak of fighting 33 months ago.
But lulls in violence and cease-fire efforts have been scuttled repeatedly in the past, both by Hamas carrying out attacks and Israel carrying out targeted killings of militants.
Israel has said this time that it would accept a truce, but only as a brief precursor to a crackdown on Hamas by Palestinian security forces. However, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has said he will not use force against the militants, for fear of sparking a civil war.
A Palestinian source involved in the truce talks said yesterday that a final draft of the cease-fire proposal has been sent to Khaled Mashal, a top Hamas leader in Damascus.
The draft does not specify the duration of the truce, and this will be left to Egyptian mediators to determine, the source said. The document states that the armed groups are willing to give Abbas a chance to reach an agreement with the Israelis, according to the source.
The truce agreement was drawn up by Marwan Barghouti, a jailed Palestinian uprising leader, in his Israeli prison cell, said the source. Barghouti has been in close touch with Mashal through intermediaries, while Egypt has supervised the negotiations.
Egyptian diplomatic sources said Mashal was heading to Cairo later yesterday or today, and that he would be accompanied by Ramadan Shalah, leader of the smaller Islamic Jihad group.
Several Palestinian Authority officials expressed optimism.
"Hamas told us they would give us an answer so we expect an answer, and we expect it to be a positive one," said Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, adding that they also expected "to get assurances about Israel's obligations not to carry out any attacks hopefully today as well."
Two other top officials, Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo and adviser Sufian Abu Zaideh, also said that the direction was positive.
The Palestinian source said Hamas would relay its response to Egypt within 48 hours, and that a formal announcement was expected by Thursday in Cairo. Egypt has been trying for several months to try to persuade the armed groups to halt attacks on Israelis.
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