Violence eases before Palestinian deployment
GAZA - Violence dropped sharply in the Gaza Strip on Thursday ahead of the planned deployment of Palestinian security forces ordered by President Mahmoud Abbas to prevent attacks by militants against Israelis.
In what could be an initial sign of progress in Abbas's efforts to achieve calm, there have been no launchings since Tuesday of mortar bombs and rockets that have rained down daily on Jewish settlements in Gaza and frequently on southern Israel.
A reduction in bloodshed is crucial to keeping alive peace hopes stirred by the Jan. 9 election of Abbas to succeed the late Yasser Arafat on a platform of ending more than four years of bloodshed.
At a rare meeting with top Israeli army brass on Wednesday, Palestinian officials presented a detailed plan for stationing Gaza security forces in field positions. A Palestinian security chief said they would fan out near the border within two days.
Israeli officials said Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz approved the plan, opening the way for the deployment to begin.
"We believe in peace and negotiations and we want through negotiations to achieve peace," Abbas said in a speech for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
Aides to Abbas said he had discussed with militant leaders this week the need for restraint to help ensure Israel pulls Jewish settlers out of Gaza this year as planned -- a step it says it will not take "under fire."
At a Gaza prayer meeting, Mahmoud al-Zahar, a leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas, set terms for a truce, saying Israel must halt all military activity in the territory, leave checkpoints and free Palestinian prisoners.
Hamas has said any cease-fire with Israel must be based on mutuality, but Zahar's statement was the clearest sign yet the group was considering Abbas's call for non-violence.
"I sense we are on the verge of some sort of (truce) but we must not be surprised by anything in this war zone," said a senior Israeli military official.
Israel says it will not enter into any formal truce with Hamas, which is dedicated to its destruction, or other militant groups but would respond in kind if attacks on Israelis stopped.
FRESH VIOLENCE IN THE WEST BANK
In fresh violence in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers killed a 14-year-old Palestinian who witnesses said had joined other youths in throwing stones at the troops.
An Israeli military source said soldiers spotted a gunman in the crowd and opened fire but Palestinians later told the army the youngster killed in the incident had carried a fake rifle.
In an indication the ice was breaking between Israel and Abbas, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Wednesday lifted a ban on contacts with the Palestinian Authority that he imposed in response to a deadly bombing last week.
Sharon softened his position after receiving information from intelligence sources that Hamas was starting to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority, a political source said. Hamas boycotted the Jan. 9 election.
But Sharon's office said initial contacts would involve only security officials until "Palestinians take real steps to stop terrorist operations" and rocket and mortar fire.
Abbas told his security chiefs he would accept no excuses for lack of action to end violence, Palestinian officials said.
Meanwhile in another sign of improved ties, Mofaz approved the partial
opening of Gaza's Rafah Crossing to Egypt which was closed in December when
militants bombed an army post at the crossing, killing five soldiers, the
Defense Ministry said.