Israelis, Palestinians seek calm during uncertain truce

Thursday, September 20, 2001

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian police enforced an informal truce with Israel on Wednesday, patrolling hot spots, and both sides agreed to renew U.S.-hosted talks on resuming security coordination.

The calm was disrupted by an explosion at a Jewish settlement that injured two Israelis and a two-hour gun battle in the West Bank town of Hebron in which five Palestinians were injured. Each side accused the other of starting the exchange of fire, and Israel said it was too early to tell if the truce was taking hold.

The United States has been prodding Israel and the Palestinians to work out a cease-fire. Calm in the Middle East is seen as essential for Washington's attempt to bring Arab and Muslim states into a coalition that would support military retaliation for last week's airborne terror attacks.

In a first step toward cementing a truce, Israel and the Palestinians agreed that top commanders would meet to talk about resuming security coordination. Palestinian officials said the meeting would be held Thursday in Tel Aviv, with U.S. participation. Israel said a time and place had not yet been set.

In the next stage, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres would meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The meeting could take place before the end of the week, said ministry spokeswoman Yaffa Ben-Ari.

Israel has said a Peres-Arafat meeting could take place only after 48 hours of calm. Israeli officials were evasive Wednesday when asked whether the countdown had begun.

"We will estimate tomorrow if there is enough of a cease-fire for a meeting between Arafat and Peres," Defense Ministry spokesman Yarden Vatikay said.

Arafat mandates restraint

The push toward a cease-fire began Tuesday when Arafat announced that he had ordered his forces to prevent all attacks on Israelis and to show maximum restraint, even if fired on. Israel responded by withdrawing tanks from Palestinian territory and promising to halt military strikes.

Despite the announcements, there were several skirmishes late Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the Gaza Strip was largely quiet, as was the West Bank -- with the exception of the explosion in the Jewish settlement of Oranit and the gunbattle in Hebron.

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