JERUSALEM (AP) In steps toward a truce, Israel promised yesterday not to launch strikes on the Palestinians after Yasser Arafat said he ordered his forces to prevent attacks on Israelis and to hold back even from responding to fire.

Paul Wong
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat speaks in Gaza City surrounded by, from right, E.U Special Middle East envoy Miguel Moratinos, an unidentified Arafat adviser, United Nations Mideast envoy Terje Roed-Larsen and <br><br>AP PHOTO

Israel also withdrew dozens of tanks from Palestinian areas it has recently seized. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has been prodding both sides to work out a cease-fire, said he was encouraged by the mutual gestures. “We see some promise,” he said.

Continued Mideast fighting would disrupt Washington”s efforts to bring Arab and Muslim countries into an international anti-terror coalition being formed in response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Previous truce deals have collapsed quickly, and there were no assurances that the latest effort would succeed. Hours after the two sides” announcements, there were exchanges of fire yesterday evening in two locations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

However, the terror attacks on the United States and U.S. preparations to respond may have forced Israel and the Palestinians to review their positions.

A senior Palestinian official, speaking privately, said the Palestinian leadership hoped to start a new chapter with Israel.

The U.N. envoy to the Middle East, Terje Roed-Larsen, also said he sensed a shift.

“I think there”s a strong belief on the Palestinian side that power is no longer in the barrel of a gun, that power now is based on diplomatic instruments to be used at the negotiating table,” said Roed-Larsen, who keeps in close contact with Arafat.

Arafat told foreign diplomats in a meeting at his Gaza office yesterday that he was committed to a truce and had ordered his security forces “to act intensively in securing a cease-fire on all our fronts.”

Even if his men came under fire, the Palestinian leader said, they were to show “maximum restraint.”

Later yesterday, Arafat met with Palestinian security commanders in Gaza to discuss the truce. He briefed West Bank commanders by phone, aides said.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer ordered a halt to all military strikes against the Palestinians. Such strikes in the past have included incursions into Palestinian territory and targeted killings of suspected Palestinian militants.

“If Arafat really wants to calm the area, we want to help, to give Arafat a chance,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Yarden Vatikay, adding that Israel remained skeptical about Arafat”s intentions.

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