The papers all lead with the U.S.-brokered agreement between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators for Israeli troops to pull out of most of the Gaza Strip and turn over responsibility for maintaining security in those areas to Palestinian forces. Despite skepticism expressed by observers on both sides, the papers characterize this moment as one of the most promising since the current Palestinian uprising began 33 months ago, especially because another agreement is in the works for Israel to pull out of Bethlehem, and Palestinian officials are on the verge of convincing the three leading militant factions to declare a three-month suspension of all attacks on all Israelis, including—significantly—those on soldiers and settlers in the occupied territories. A cease-fire could be announced as early as Sunday.
According to the Washington Post's lead, it was progress toward a cease-fire agreement that jumpstarted the stalled withdrawal negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians just a couple days ago. That and lots of pressure from U.S. mediators, who are eager to build momentum before the arrival of Condoleezza Rice, the American national security adviser, next week.
The new agreement will allow Palestinians to travel freely along Gaza's main north-south road, which the Los Angeles Times' lead story describes as "an obstacle course of tank-torn pavement and army checkpoints." Israel also agreed to stop its raids on and targeted killings of militants in Gaza, although it reserves the right to strike pre-emptively against what it calls "ticking bombs," provided it first informs the Palestinian leadership of the threat and gives Palestinians a chance to thwart any potential attack. The New York Times and WP report that Israel must also inform American monitors before any strikes in the Gaza Strip, a requirement that the NYT's lead suggests will put the U.S. in the position of refereeing any violence between the sides. "The U.S. will monitor and be the arbiter," a senior Israeli official told the NYT.
In a related story inside, headlined "ISRAEL GAMBLES ON SECURITY SHIFT IN GAZA," the WP hints that U.S. pressure has forced the Israelis into a particularly conciliatory posture. Israeli officials even said that their "ticking bombs" caveat would have a weekslong grace period to allow Palestinian security forces time to take control: "Nobody expects 100 percent results," one official told the paper.
Still, the papers all agree that the pullout amounts to a risky game of Gaza Strip poker. Israel insists it will be forced to reoccupy the parts of Gaza—a move that would probably doom the current peace process—if Palestinian leaders fail to crack down on militants, or if a large suicide bombing occurs under the Palestinians' watch.
But perhaps that won't happen this time around, given that the papers' leads all mention that Hamas' spiritual leader endorsed the cease-fire yesterday, telling Reuters his group "has reached a decision to call a truce, or a suspension of fighting activities." Israeli officials have long insisted that Hamas be entirely dismantled, asserting that any cease-fire is really just a breather during which the group can rearm and regroup for more attacks. But an interesting piece deep inside the Post suggests that, counter to the conventional wisdom, Hamas may decide on its own to become more moderate in order to remain a viable political force in a future Palestinian state. "Hamas is looking for an exit, but they can't pull back in one step," explained one Palestinian journalist, who characterized the group as pragmatic. "Hamas needs much more time to get closer to Abu Mazen's line and to convince its supporters … and it's not easy for Hamas to adopt a more moderate line."
The WP and NYT both off-lead news that the LAT was able to catch yesterday: the late-night, back-to-back passage of Medicare prescription drug bills by both the House and Senate yesterday. At points both the House and Senate versions seemed headed for defeat, and it took lots of last-minute cajoling by Republican leaders to get the legislation passed. "We got it done," said Dennis Hastert, the House Speaker, in a separate NYT piece devoted to the horse-trading. "Sometimes it's pretty. Sometimes it ain't." The bills, which differ significantly, will need to be reconciled in a conference committee that will probably take several months to complete its work. Even so, the NYT and WP both run stories describing how Republicans will benefit in the 2004 presidential campaign by delivering on this traditionally Democratic issue.
Both the LAT and WP front, and the NYT stuffs, continuing trouble in Iraq. Two soldiers who were guarding a munitions depot have been missing since Wednesday, and two more were killed yesterday, one while he was shopping for DVDs in a normally peaceful market in Baghdad. In addition, Baghdad remains largely without electricity as the temperature soars into triple digits because of continuing attacks on infrastructure; according to the LAT, two Iraqi electrical workers were killed in a highway ambush yesterday. In Washington, after a closed meeting with senators, Rumsfeld was still reluctant to call the resistance organized guerrilla warfare: "I don't know that I would use the word."
Despite the increased grumbling about the U.S.-British occupation of Iraq, the WP reports inside that the U.S. has ordered an end to elections and self-rule in provincial cities across Iraq. Although L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in charge of the occupation, said that there is "no blanket prohibition" against self-rule, military commanders have in the last several days canceled several elections that had initially been permitted and installed—strangely—former Iraqi military leaders as interim mayors and administrators. And Bahith Sattar, a biology teacher who had been a candidate for mayor in Sammara, is pissed about it. "They give us a general," Sattar, told the Post. "What does that tell you, eh? First of all, an Iraqi general? They lost the last three wars! They're not even good generals. And they know nothing about running a city."