With the Middle East reeling from the deadliest day in 17 months of fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would ease his demand for a week of calm before implementing a US truce plan.
Israeli forces were in action yesterday in two cities in the West Bank and two more in the Gaza Strip, staging helicopter missile attacks, bulldozing homes and rounding up Palestinian men as part of a search for suspected militants. A 15-year-old Palestinian girl was shot dead in the West Bank and several Palestinians were wounded, Palestinian officials said.
A day earlier, the Israeli military offensive left at least 39 Palestinians dead, including several civilians, as Israeli troops attacked positions held by armed Palestinians. Five Israeli teenagers and one soldier were also killed.
Sharon, meanwhile, announced the shift in his position on Israeli television Friday after speaking to US Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"Negotiations to stop the shooting will be [held] under fire," Sharon said. "These are the negotiations to achieve a ceasefire."
Sharon has insisted for months that he was not prepared to begin taking the steps outlined in the US ceasefire proposal until there was a full week without fighting.
Sharon's statement was met with skepticism from the Palestinian side.
"Words are not enough. Sharon and his government have to stop their continuous massacres against Palestinian civilians, cities, villages and refugee camps," said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "There is no military solution."
The US, which has limited its diplomatic involvement recently, appeared set to take a more active role. The US also announced that Mideast envoy Anthony Zinni would return to the region this coming week.
"It's important for the Israelis to think hard about their policies, think through the consequences of things like going into heavily populated areas with heavy military force," Richard Boucher, the US State Department spokesman said Friday.