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Mideast takes a first wary step

Palestinians worked toward a cease-fire Sunday as Israel declared a Gaza pullout.

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The classic formula for Middle East peacemaking is land for peace. This week, after nearly three years of conflict, Israel and the Palestinians are attempting a scaled-down version: pummeled territory for temporary truce.

In a quid pro quo intended to add momentum to a US-backed peace plan known as the road map, Israel has agreed to withdraw its forces from the Gaza Strip and militant Palestinians groups are getting ready to cease their attacks against Israelis for three months.

While the deal may yield short-term calm - at least one Israeli commentator is calling the cease-fire the end of the "1,000-day war" - a long-term peace remains as elusive as ever. Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, dismisses the idea that the cease-fire is the end of anything, or even the beginning of the end. "It's merely the beginning of the beginning," he says. The terms of this week's trade-off again suggest that Israel maintains the upper hand in this conflict and that engaging in violence has hurt the Palestinians. Should the cease-fire hold, the Israelis will get the "quiet" they have long demanded as a precursor to the resumption of substantive negotiations.

The Palestinians will get back some of what they had three years ago, when they enjoyed autonomy in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Should the withdrawal indeed occur - it is expected to begin Monday - the Palestinians will regain authority over a largely impoverished people hit hard by the conflict.

A crowded piece of land

In Gaza more than a million Palestinians surround Jewish enclaves that house some 7,000 Israeli settlers. The territory is a sliver of sand and densely packed humanity hemmed in by Egypt, Israel, and the Mediterranean.

Israelis know it as a source of cheap labor and of the homemade rockets and mortars that Palestinians occasionally fire at nearby Israeli communities.

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