Obtaining the militants' support for a cease-fire is crucial for implementing a U.S.-backed peace plan. Expectations were running high Sunday that this time, Egypt would succeed in getting the armed groups to sign on to a truce, after several failed attempts in recent months.
The Egyptian mediators arrived just hours after the Palestinian security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, held talks with a senior Israeli defense official, Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad.
"We are helping the two sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the aim of easing tension and sitting at the negotiation table," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told reporters in Cairo. "Israeli efforts are also needed. Therefore, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon should help because this will be in the interest of his people's peace and the Palestinians as well."
Dahlan proposed that Israeli troops withdraw from large areas of Gaza, to positions held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000. Dahlan also asked Israel to pull out of the West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Ramallah, the Palestinians' administrative center.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz confirmed Sunday that he is considering a withdrawal from Bethlehem and parts of Gaza. "There are detailed conversations," a Cabinet official quoted Mofaz as telling Cabinet ministers in a weekly meeting. "We are getting into logistical details of where the borders are and who is in charge of which areas."
In a first phase, Israel would pull out of the towns of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia in northern Gaza. Despite the security talks, Israeli forces entered Beit Hanoun early Sunday, setting off a firefight that killed one Palestinian and wounded seven, doctors said. Palestinians said he was a local commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades militia, and soldiers targeted him. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
The renewed contacts come after a bloody week in which 64 people were killed on both sides in bombings and missile attacks. The violence spurred intense U.S. mediation, in an attempt to rescue the so-called "road map" plan to Mideast peace and Palestinian statehood by 2005. President Bush launched the plan at a Mideast summit earlier this month.
Mr. Bush said Sunday he has not lost hope for peace and urged those who want peace to "deny the killers the opportunities to destroy it."
In the plan's first stage, the Palestinians are supposed to dismantle militias that have killed hundreds of Israelis in the past 32 months. In parallel, Israel is supposed to withdraw to positions held before the outbreak of fighting, dismantle settlement outposts and freeze settlement construction.
The Palestinians said they will not use force against militias, for fear of sparking civil war, meaning the road map will only succeed if a truce agreement is reached.
Two Egyptian mediators, assistants to Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, arrived in Gaza City on Sunday for talks with various Palestinian militants, most importantly Hamas. The Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, was to join the talks on Monday.
Officials close to the talks said they were optimistic an agreement could be reached, despite assertions by militant leaders in recent days that they will reject a truce. Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr quoted an Abbas envoy to the talks as saying progress has been made.
However, for now the Palestinian factions propose at best to halt attacks in Israel, but in not the West Bank and Gaza, said Zakaria al-Agha, a senior official of the mainstream Fatah movement. Such a partial truce would be unacceptable to Israel, the United States and Egypt.
Hamas officials in Gaza have been most vocal in rejecting a truce, particularly after Israel tried last week to kill a leader of the group, Abdel Aziz Rantisi. A 7-year-old girl died Sunday of wounds she suffered in the air strike on Rantisi, which killed two other people.
The final decision on a truce will be made by Hamas leaders abroad, including Khaled Mashal.
Sources close to the talks said the Hamas leaders abroad are willing to consider a comprehensive cease-fire, provided Israel promises to halt targeted killings, incursions and other military strikes. Sharon has refused to give such a guarantee, saying Israel cannot compromise on its security.
However, in Sunday's Cabinet briefing, Sharon suggested that targeted killings would be used sparingly. "If no one fires on us, we will not return fire, except in cases of ticking bombs," a Cabinet official quoted Sharon as saying. A "ticking bomb" is a militant about to carry out an attack.
In the past week, Israel has carried out seven missile attacks on Hamas targets.
"The main object that we have at this present time is to defeat terror," Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said before the Cabinet meeting. "If the Palestinians will do it, God bless them. If not, then we will have to do it."
In other developments Sunday, the Israeli settlement watchdog group Peace Now said settlers have established four more outposts in the West Bank in recent days, after the military last week dismantled 10 such enclaves, in line with the road map.
Also Sunday, a team of 10 to 15 U.S. officials, headed by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf, arrived in the region to supervise implementation of the road map. Wolf meets with Israeli officials on Monday, and with Dahlan and Abbas in Gaza on Tuesday, Israel Radio said.
Dov Weisglass, an aide to Sharon, will meet Monday in Washington with Condoleezza Rice, Bush's assistant for national security, Israeli officials said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and other senior representatives of the road map sponsors — the United States, United Nations, Russia and the European Union — plan to meet Thursday in Jordan.