Hundreds of Palestinian security officers were expected to be deployed in Gaza Friday after a rare meeting between Palestinian security chiefs and Israeli generals on how to silence a wave of rocket and mortar fire into southern Israel.
The first effort at security collaboration in at least 18 months marked a swift reversal of Ariel Sharon's decision from the weekend to suspend contacts with the fledgling Palestinian administration, and could give President Mahmoud Abbas the necessary breathing room to reach a critical cease-fire agreement with Hamas.
After four years of refusing to deal with Yasser Arafat over his failure to rein in Palestinian militants, the Israeli about-face held out a tentative hope that Messrs Sharon and Abbas could forge a new understanding on ending the Palestinian uprising.
But at a minimum, Israel's
decision to hold fire in the face of calls to retake wide swaths of the Gaza Strip reflects a tactical move by Sharon to insulate himself from allegations that he undermined Abbas, say analysts.
"It's a pragmatic decision, because first of all we don't want to be accused of not having given [Abbas] the opportunity,'' says Shmuel Bar, a Middle East expert at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center near Tel Aviv. "It's worthwhile from our point of view as well. It's not popular in Israel to fight in areas where the prime minister says we don't have to be.''
Patrols of Palestinian security officers have already been spotted in areas of northern Gaza used as launching sites for homemade rockets by militants from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and even Abbas's own Fatah party. Thursday evening Palestinian security chiefs presented Israeli counterparts with a detailed plan on how to stop the rocket fire and the infiltration of militants into Israel.
Israeli officials confirmed, on the condition of anonymity, that they had accepted the plan, and that the Palestinians said they would deploy up to 1,000 officers.
"We told them [Israeli generals] that we are arranging a plan to deploy the Palestinian security forces into both the northern and southern parts of Gaza," Maj. Gen. Moussa Arafat, a Palestinian security chief, told the Associated Press Thursday. "In the first stage, it will be in the north, and then we will move into the south."
Last weekend, a suicide bombing at a crossing point into Gaza left several of the city's residents dead. The failure of Israel's military to snuff out the strikes prompted the municipal council to call a general strike on Monday, which put rising pressure on Sharon to instruct the army to secure large areas in northern Gaza.
Palestinians have cautioned that such an offensive would all but doom talks with Hamas on a cease-fire. That's because militants are demanding from Abbas a guarantee that Israel will halt its assassination strikes and incursions.
"There's no reason to expose [Abbas] to pressure from within because of the continuous threats from Israel,'' says Elias Zananiri, a former Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman. "His agenda is clear, and Hamas has to listen.''
The Palestinian Authority's official newspaper, Al-Ayyam, published comments from a negotiator on Thursday that Abbas and Hamas are closer than ever to reaching an agreement on a moratorium on attacks. Such an accord would give Abbas an opportunity to open talks with Sharon on coordinating Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza later this year.
But analysts caution against too much optimism. "We need to be realistic," says Scott Lasensky, a senior researcher at the US Institute for Peace in Washington. "Israelis and Palestinians are still far apart when it comes to the core issues."
• Joshua S. Burek in Boston contributed to this report. AP material was also used.