Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat announced yesterday that he is unilaterally enforcing a cease-fire, and Israel responded by ordering a halt to certain military operations.
The announcement is a reverberation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Mr. Arafat's gesture reflects his desire to appeal to the United States, which is forming a coalition of nations to retaliate against those who perpetrated the attacks. The cease-fire will test Mr. Arafat's ability to rein in militant groups in the Palestinian territories.
"Today's a good day," says a European diplomat involved in mediation attempts. "It's a very significant shift on Arafat's part, and Sharon has acknowledged it. I hope we'll soon see some practical results from it."
The Palestinian leader is responding to an initiative from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who told parliament Sunday that he would curtail his army's "initiated" operations if Arafat enforced a cease-fire. The Israelis in turn appear to be responding to appeals from the US to calm Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Several Arab leaders have indicated in recent days that continued violence in the Palestinian territories - largely occupied by America's main ally in the region, Israel - saps their willingness to join the US-led coalition.
In his announcement Tuesday, Arafat said he was committed to a truce and was doing his utmost to enforce it.
He said he has ordered his security forces "to act intensively in securing a cease-fire on all our fronts." Even if his men came under fire, he said, they were to show "maximum restraint."
"If Arafat really wants to calm the area, we want to help, to give Arafat a chance," said Israeli military spokesman Yarden Vatikay, adding that Israel remained skeptical about Arafat's intentions.
Palestinian officials, meanwhile, confirmed that Arafat met Sunday with Mr. Sharon's son, Omri, who has served as a messenger in the past. The meeting came despite statements by Sharon that high-level contacts could only begin after 48 hours of complete calm.
It is by no means clear whether the emerging truce will hold. In the past year of fighting, several cease-fire deals have collapsed, with each side accusing the other of being the aggressor.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told CNN there would "undoubtedly" be a meeting by both sides, perhaps within days, if the truces hold.
The European diplomat notes that the situation is a roller-coaster of volatility.
"Any slip-up now and we could go back into a vicious circle," he says, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But the attacks on the United States and the expected US response has had an affect on the Middle East. A senior Palestinian official, speaking privately, said the Palestinian leadership hoped to start a new chapter with Israel, and suggested the dramatic events of the past week might have created the opportunity for this to happen if Israel did its part to bring down the violence.