Israel and the Palestinians take mutual steps toward cease-fire sought by United States |

Israel and the Palestinians take mutual steps toward cease-fire sought by United States


JERUSALEM (AP) – In steps toward a truce, Israel promised Tuesday not to launch strikes on the Palestinians after Yasser Arafat said he ordered his forces to prevent attacks on Israelis and to hold back even from responding to fire.

Israel also withdrew dozens of tanks from Palestinian areas it has recently seized. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has been prodding both sides to work out a cease-fire, said he was encouraged by the mutual gestures. ”We see some promise,” he said.

Continued Mideast fighting would disrupt Washington’s efforts to bring Arab and Muslim countries into an international anti-terror coalition being formed in response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Previous truce deals have collapsed quickly, and there were no assurances that the latest effort would succeed. Hours after the two sides’ announcements, there were exchanges of fire Tuesday evening in two locations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

However, the terror attacks on the United States and U.S. preparations to respond may have forced Israel and the Palestinians to review their positions.

A senior Palestinian official, speaking privately, said the Palestinian leadership hoped to start a new chapter with Israel.

The U.N. envoy to the Middle East, Terje Roed-Larsen, also said he sensed a shift.

”I think there’s a strong belief on the Palestinian side that power is no longer in the barrel of a gun, that power now is based on diplomatic instruments to be used at the negotiating table,” said Roed-Larsen, who keeps in close contact with Arafat.

Arafat told foreign diplomats in a meeting at his Gaza office Tuesday that he was committed to a truce and had ordered his security forces ”to act intensively in securing a cease-fire on all our fronts.”

Even if his men came under fire, the Palestinian leader said, they were to show ”maximum restraint.”

Later Tuesday, Arafat met with Palestinian security commanders in Gaza to discuss the truce. He briefed West Bank commanders by phone, aides said.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer ordered a halt to all military strikes against the Palestinians. Such strikes in the past have included incursions into Palestinian territory and targeted killings of suspected Palestinian militants.

”If Arafat really wants to calm the area, we want to help, to give Arafat a chance,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Yarden Vatikay, adding that Israel remained skeptical about Arafat’s intentions.

Israeli Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir said that under the new rules, soldiers would not respond to Palestinian fire unless lives were in danger.

Shortly after that announcement, more than 35 tanks and armored vehicles were seen withdrawing from positions around the West Bank town of Jenin, witnesses said. Tanks also pulled away from the West Bank town of Jericho, the army said.

In recent days, Israel had stepped up its retaliation for Palestinian shooting attacks, with Israeli tanks entering several Palestinian towns. In the past week of fighting, 26 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed.

The army said a military post came under fire in the West Bank town of Hebron on Tuesday evening, after Arafat’s announcement. Troops returned fire, the army said.

A gunbattle was also reported in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, near the Israeli-Palestinian border. It was not immediately clear what triggered the fighting.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said he expected to meet Arafat after a truce has taken hold. The two leaders have been trying for weeks to arrange a series of meetings, but efforts were disrupted by outbursts of violence.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed Tuesday’s truce moves and hopes they will ”contribute to an early and productive meeting” between Arafat and Peres, Annan spokesman Fred Eckhard said at U.N. headquarters.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vetoed a Peres-Arafat meeting, saying high-level contacts could only take place after 48 hours of complete calm.

However, on the same day, Sharon’s son, Omri, and Avi Gil, a Peres confidant, met secretly with Arafat, and Peres said Tuesday that the mutual gestures were agreed upon at the time.

”We sent, as you know, two messengers to Arafat .. and said to him, ‘Listen, you stop the fire, we’ll stop the fire, and within a short time we can meet,”’ Peres told Israel TV’s Channel Two.

Arafat, meanwhile, said he has informed the United States of his willingness to contribute to the anti-terror campaign, a move that was likely to renew friction with the Islamic militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Senior Muslim clergymen linked to Hamas issued a religious edict Tuesday, saying those siding with the United States against Muslims are traitors.

Offenders would be committing ”one of the biggest crimes and treason against God, the Prophet Muhammad and the believers,” said Sheik Hamed Bitawi, making the announcement in the West Bank town of Nablus.

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