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Israeli-Palestinian Truce; Historic Elections in Saudi Arabia

I’m Steve Ember with In the News in VOA Special English.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met in Egypt this week and declared a cease-fire. The meeting Tuesday was the first in more than four years between leaders of the two sides. The current violence between Palestinians and Israelis began in September of two thousand.

Both men spoke of increased chances for peace. But violence resurfaced on Thursday. Members of Hamas fired shells and rockets at Jewish settlements in Gaza, although no one was hurt.

Mister Abbas had deployed a large security force in the area to prevent attacks on Israelis. After the shelling, he dismissed three top security officials. Israel praised the action. But cabinet members said Israel would have to act if the Palestinians cannot control the situation.

Hamas said it was not trying to break the cease-fire. It said the attack was in answer to the killing of a Palestinian in Gaza on Wednesday.

Israel has been urging Mister Abbas to disarm militant groups. On Friday he went to Gaza to demand that they observe the truce announced in Sharm el-Sheikh. Earlier he sent a representative to meet with Hezbollah officials in Lebanon, where that group is based. Palestinian and Israeli officials have both accused Hezbollah of plotting to wreck the cease-fire.

In return for Palestinian promises to control violence, Israel said it would free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners within weeks. Israeli also promised to withdraw troops from five West Bank towns.

President Bush recently said he would ask Congress for three hundred fifty million dollars for the Palestinians. The money would be used to help them develop an independent state.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met separately with Mister Sharon and Mister Abbas this week. Secretary Rice said the United States would give the Palestinians forty million dollars immediately.

In other news this week in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia held its first open elections. Candidates competed for half the seats on local councils in the Riyadh area. The national government will choose the other half.

Close to two thousand men competed for one hundred twenty-seven seats. Women could not be candidates. They also could not vote. The government said it did not have enough time to set up separate voting stations for them.

Still, many voters said the local elections marked the beginning of democratic reforms. The ruling family is under pressure to give Saudis more political power.

About one hundred fifty thousand men in and around the capital signed up to vote. Up to six hundred thousand could have registered.

Unofficial results were announced Friday. News agencies said Islamist candidates supported by clergy appeared to have won in Riyadh.

Elections are set for March and April in other parts of the kingdom.

In the News in VOA Special English was written by Jerilyn Watson. I’m Steve Ember.