Fri, Jan 21, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Sharon lifts a contact ban with Palestinian leadership

AGENCIES , Jerusalem, Gaza Strip

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lifted a ban on contacts with the Palestinians after new leader Mahmoud Abbas ordered Gaza security forces to halt attacks on Israelis, and officials from both sides met within hours.

There were no signs early yesterday that Palestinian police had begun to take up positions in areas from which militants have fired mortar bombs and rockets at Jewish settlements in Gaza and southern Israel.

The Palestinian security commander in Gaza, Major-General Abdel-Razek al-Majaydeh, said on Wednesday security units would fan out near the territory's borders within two days.

Cleared by Israel's security cabinet, Israeli top brass met Palestinian counterparts late on Wednesday at the Erez border crossing in Gaza to discuss the Gaza deployment and halting the violence.

Israel has threatened tough military action if Abbas fails to act.

"We want to make sure the Israelis know where our men are, so they don't get shot by accident," a Palestinian security official said, referring to the evening security talks.

Sharon's decision to restore contacts could revive Middle East peace hopes stirred by Abbas's Jan. 9 election on a platform of ending bloodshed, but dimmed by persistent militant violence in defiance of the new leader's calls for a cease-fire.

Sharon opted to restore contacts with the Palestinians after his security cabinet "received information from intelligence sources that Hamas [militants] were starting to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority," a political source said.

But Sharon's office said initial contacts would involve only security officials and there would be none with Abbas on diplomatic issues until "Palestinians take real steps to stop terrorist operations and rocket and mortar fire."

Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said on Army Radio there were signs "Abu Mazen (Abbas) intends to act to quell terror, not because Israel wants it but because it's primarily in his interest."

"He wants serious effort, follow-up work, and no tricks and games since this is a new era. Those who fail in doing their jobs will be punished," the official said.

Israel plans to reopen Gaza's Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Friday to allow thousands of stranded Palestinians to return home in what Israel described as a "goodwill gesture."

The crossing was closed on Dec. 12 after Palestinian militants killed four Israeli soldiers.

Aides to Abbas said he had discussed with militant leaders the need for restraint to help ensure that Israel pulls Jewish settlers out of Gaza this year as planned -- a step it says it will not take "under fire."

But Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said a truce could not transpire unless Israel reciprocated by stopping raids to kill or capture wanted militants.

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