JERUSALEM (AP) Palestinian police enforced an informal truce with Israel yesterday, patrolling hot spots, and both sides agreed to renew U.S.-hosted talks on resuming security coordination.
The calm was disrupted by an explosion at a Jewish settlement that injured two Israelis and a two-hour gun battle in the West Bank town of Hebron in which five Palestinians were injured. Each side accused the other of starting the exchange of fire, and Israel said it was too early to tell if the truce was taking hold.
The United States has been prodding Israel and the Palestinians to work out a cease-fire. Calm in the Middle East is seen as essential for Washington”s attempt to bring Arab and Muslim states into a coalition that would support military retaliation for last week”s terror attacks.
In a first step toward cementing a truce, Israel and the Palestinians agreed that top commanders would meet to talk about resuming security coordination. Palestinian officials said the meeting would be held today in Tel Aviv, with U.S. participation. Israel said a time and place had not yet been set.
President Bush said yesterday he has “a sense of optimism” over informal truce, saying last week”s attacks on the United States may be prompting the current hopeful actions.
“I felt like this event may shake up the attitudes of the Middle East,” the president said from the Oval Office yesterday. “People are resolving to show the world there can be peace there, as well.”
In the next stage, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres would meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The meeting could take place before the end of the week, said ministry spokeswoman Yaffa Ben-Ari.
Israel has said a Peres-Arafat meeting could take place only after 48 hours of calm. Israeli officials were evasive Wednesday when asked whether the countdown had begun.
“We will estimate tomorrow if there is enough of a cease-fire for a meeting between Arafat and Peres,” Defense Ministry spokesman Yarden Vatikay said.
The push toward a cease-fire began Tuesday when Arafat announced that he had ordered his forces to prevent all attacks on Israelis and to show maximum restraint, even if fired on. Israel responded by withdrawing tanks from Palestinian territory and promising to halt military strikes.
Despite the announcements, there were several skirmishes late Tuesday. Yesterday, the Gaza Strip was largely quiet, as was the West Bank with the exception of the explosion in the Jewish settlement of Oranit and the gunbattle in Hebron.
At Oranit, two security guards in a patrol car ran over an explosive device that went off, injuring them both moderately, rescue officials said.
In Hebron, the Israeli army said Palestinians fired from Hebron”s Abu Sneineh neighborhood toward an enclave of Jewish settlers, and an Israeli tank responded by firing four shells at the gunmen.
The Palestinians said the soldiers fired first. Five Palestinians were injured, one seriously. Earlier in the day, Palestinian police had patrolled Abu Sneineh for the first time in a year of fighting. Palestinian security officials said the officers left when the neighborhood came under Israeli fire.
Israeli officials indicated that the Hebron shooting would not derail truce efforts. “We want to give this a chance and we are still giving it,” Vatikay said.
In the center of the Gaza Strip, Palestinians fired three mortar shells late Wednesday toward Israeli troops but caused no injuries or damage, the army said.
Bush indicated Wednesday that he was taking Arafat”s commitment to a truce very seriously, saying: “I would hope that Chairman Arafat backs up his strong statement with action.”
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he had spoken by telephone Wednesday with Arafat and Sharon and expressed his “satisfaction that the first 24 hours of the arrangement they made yesterday has resulted in a significant decrease in the amount of violence in the region.”
Arafat has given orders to all his forces to keep the situation calm at any cost, said Sadi Naji, chief of Palestinian security in the West Bank city of Jenin.
Previous cease-fire efforts have failed most recently a U.S.-brokered deal in June. There was also some concern that Arafat might not be able to rein in Islamic militants and small bands of gunmen.
The militant Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad said yesterday they would not abide by Arafat”s cease fire order. The two groups have taken responsibility for dozens of attacks that have killed scores of Israelis since the clashes broke out last year.