Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday he is "very satisfied" with Mahmoud Abbas' efforts to restore calm and that he is eager to resume negotiations with the Palestinian leader.
But in a small snag, the deployment of Palestinian police in southern Gaza, initially set for yesterday, was postponed for technical reasons, Israeli military officials said.
The deployment will take place today, a senior Palestinian security official said, while police trained in the Khan Younis refugee camp.
Despite the delay, optimism was running relatively high after Israeli and Palestinian officials held their first round of diplomatic talks Wednesday, and the sides looked toward the possibility of a Sharon-Abbas summit in the next two weeks.
"There is no doubt Abu Mazen has started to work," Sharon was quoted as saying in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot. Abbas is widely known as Abu Mazen.
"I am very satisfied with what I am hearing is happening on the Palestinian side and I am very interested in advancing processes with him," he said.
Meanwhile, in a race that pits Abbas' ruling Fatah party against his popular rival, the Islamic Hamas group, Palestinian voters in 10 Gaza towns began choosing mayors and councils in the first such election since 1976.
The Gaza vote follows a Dec. 23 election in 26 West Bank towns and villages, and a Jan. 9 presidential race in which Abbas was chosen to succeed Yasser Arafat, who died Nov. 11.
Hamas made a strong showing in the West Bank race -- taking over many councils from Fatah -- and was also expected to do well in Gaza, where the militant group is popular.
Hamas has recently shifted its focus toward politics, and agreed to halt its attacks, at least temporarily.
The developments signaled the possibility of a new era of relations between Israel and the Palestinians and among Palestinians themselves.
In the Yediot interview, Sharon said he would not stop all Israeli military operations for the time being, but would make gestures toward the new Palestinian leader. He did not elaborate.
"I intend to advance the chance for an opportunity for an agreement with the Palestinians, I intend to make gestures toward Abu Mazen and at the same time keep my eyes open and examine the situation on their side," Sharon said.
Israeli and Palestinian security officials met in Gaza twice on Wednesday to arrange the deployment in southern Gaza, which one Israeli government official called "complicated."
The official estimated it would take at least a week for Palestinian forces to deploy in the coastal area that has been one of the most volatile since fighting erupted in Sept. 2000.
In the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, three police jeeps carrying armed police officers in full uniform drove down the main street.
The police trained for the deployment, setting up a roadblock on a main road, while a commander instructed them on how to conduct security checks.
Nearby, at another checkpoint, a Palestinian bulldozer cleared rubble so policemen would be able to take up their positions today.
The security commanders are ensuring the police know where they are to be posted and what their orders are ahead of the deployment, a senior security official said on condition of anonymity.
Palestinian police officers deployed in the northern Gaza Strip last Friday, leading to a halt in rocket fire on Israeli border towns.