Militant groups have agreed to temporarily halt attacks on Israel -- a precursor to a formal truce agreement -- to give Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a chance to persuade Israel to stop targeting militants in return, Palestinian officials said on Monday.
The movement toward a cease-fire, coupled with efforts by Palestinian police to stop militants from firing rockets from Gaza into Israel, has raised hopes that a deal can be reached to end four years of bloody conflict between the sides.
In the only serious incident on Monday, soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian in a no-go zone near the Karni crossing between Gaza and Israel, apparently planning to plant a bomb, Army Radio and the military said. On Jan. 13, Palestinian attackers killed five Israelis at the crossing.
Abbas said he was close to sealing a ceasefire agreement with the militants.
"Differences have diminished and I hope that there will be a final agreement very soon," he told reporters when he arrived back in the West Bank city of Ramallah after nearly a week of talks with militant leaders in Gaza.
Palestinian officials say Abbas will not formally declare a truce until he receives Israeli guarantees that it will halt military operations, including arrest raids and targeted killings of militants.
Palestinian negotiator Ziad Abu Amr said on Monday the armed groups have promised to temporarily suspend attacks on Israel.
"They will continue doing that for some time to see if Israel is ready to accept demands and hold the truce," Abu Amr told the Voice of Palestine radio.
Israeli officials have long resisted making a formal commitment to stop targeting militants, but said they would "respond to quiet with quiet," halting military raids. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reacted positively to the recent calm but warned of a tough response if attacks resume.
Abbas won a Jan. 9 Palestinian election to replace Yasser Arafat, who died in November. Israel shunned Arafat after the current round of violence began in September 2000, accusing him of encouraging terror attacks. But Israeli officials have been optimistic that Abbas, a pragmatist who has criticized the armed Palestinian uprising, will help bring calm to the region in advance of Israel's planned pullout from the Gaza Strip later this year.
In the new spirit of hope, Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who holds a largely ceremonial post, called Abbas on Monday to talk about the importance of working together for peace, Katsav's office said.
Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Israel should help Abbas win popular support for his policies.
"There are things we have to do, in everyone's opinion, such as removing the obstacle of the checkpoints," Peres told Israel Army Radio on Monday.
Peres is the leader of the dovish Labor Party, Sharon's newest coalition partner.
Peres also warned that Iran is trying to disrupt the emerging truce. Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas have been funding some Palestinian militant groups.
"Iran ... is the center of terrorism in the Middle East," Peres said.
In a sign of internal change under Abbas, Palestinian workers early yesterday began tearing down illegal buildings along Gaza City's Mediterranean beachfront. Two bulldozers leveled kiosks in an operation the local police commander said would continue until hundreds of such structures are destroyed.