GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli and Palestinian leaders met yesterday to discuss ways to stop militants from firing rockets and mortars in Gaza, heading off the possibility of a large-scale Israeli invasion to curb the surging violence.

Beth Dykstra
Palestinians examine a building destroyed by Israeli forces during an Israeli army operation in the West Bank city of Nablus early yesterday. The troops demolished the house, while another house burst into flames after it was hit by a tank shell. (AP PH

The decision came as the top Palestinian security chief ordered a deployment of troops along the Gaza-Israel frontier to stop the attacks — the first concrete steps to rein in militants since the election of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel broke off contacts with Abbas’s government after a Jan. 13 attack on a vital Gaza-Israel crossing point killed six Israelis. But the ban came under criticism from the United States, the United Nations, Egypt and Jordan — and it lasted only a few days.

After a meeting of his Security Cabinet on yesterday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office issued a statement saying “a security meeting will be held at the field commander level to coordinate security steps.”

Israeli officials said the meeting convened at the Erez crossing between northern Gaza and Israel. Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, representing the Israelis, met Palestinian public security director Maj. Gen. Moussa Arafat. Israel Army Radio reported that Arafat presented a detailed plan to deploy hundreds of armed police in the border area to halt the rocket fire, and Kochavi was to deliver it to Israel’s defense minister.

The sudden turnabout defused escalating tension that appeared to be leading toward an Israeli invasion, clashes with Palestinian gunmen and possibly dozens of casualties.

Israel’s Security Cabinet was considering military action to stop the barrages of mortars and rockets aimed at Jewish settlements and Israeli towns just outside Gaza, when the Palestinian leadership called for security talks toward cooperation in ending the violence, officials said.

The appeal, coupled with the decision by the Palestinian police commander to deploy forces along the border to stop the rocket attacks, was enough for Israel’s new, more moderate government to put off a military strike and give renewed talks a chance.

Dalia Itzik, a Cabinet minister from the dovish Labor Party, said Israeli pressure led to Palestinian pledges for action. “It’s good that they’re going to talk,” she told Army Radio.

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