The Palestinian Authority Thursday announced it has banned citizens from carrying weapons in areas under its control, as the Palestinians are waiting for a quick Israeli response to the proposal of a mutual cease-fire declaration, and Israeli officials were expressing pleasure with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
It's the latest sign of the Palestinians' intentions to rein in violence amid signals that a peace process can be resumed. In some areas of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian militants often openly brandish their automatic weapons, highlighting the lack of law and order and control by Palestinian security forces.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he is "very satisfied" with measures that Abbas is taking to curb violence. Sharon told an Israeli newspaper that he will move toward peace with Abbas, who has been pursuing a cease-fire with militant groups. Violence has dropped off sharply in the past week. Sharon said he's prepared for concessions if Abbas disarms terrorist groups.
U.S. envoy William Burns hopes to get the road map peace plan back on track during separate talks Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger. Burns wants to help solidify the emerging cease-fire
In southern Gaza on Friday, Palestinian police practiced for deployment in some of the most volatile areas of the coastal strip.
In a test for Abbas's ruling Fatah movement, the first municipal elections in Gaza's history was being held Friday in 10 towns in the coastal strip. The militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad were expected to pose a stiff challenge to Fatah in the races.
However, a top Israeli settler rabbi is endorsing violent resistance to the government's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip this summer.
To destroy the land and give Gaza to terrorists is against the Bible, Rabbi Dor Lior said. He endorsed a new settler slogan that death is better than disengagement. The statement underscores warnings by Israeli officials that some radical settlers could take up arms to resist the Gaza pullout.
Abbas has won assurances from armed groups that they will halt attacks on Israel, provided Israel stops military operations, including arrest raids and targeted killings of Palestinian fugitives. Abbas told reporters Thursday that he expects to hear from Israel "as soon as possible" on his offer of a cease-fire declaration.
Mohammed Dahlan, a senior Abbas adviser, said in an interview with The Associated Press that Israel had agreed in principle to stop pursuing militants and halt the targeted killings.
Dahlan said the Israeli assurance came in a meeting a day earlier between senior Palestinian and Israeli officials. Dahlan participated in the meeting.
A senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel promised in the meeting to release hundreds of prisoners — a key Palestinian demand — and that the number to be released is expected to be about 900.
Training for the deployment in central and southern Gaza, three police jeeps carrying armed police officers in full uniform drove down the main street of the southern town of Khan Younis on Thursday. In a practice run, officers set up a checkpoint on the main road, while a commander instructed them on how to conduct security checks.
Despite a delay of two days, optimism was running relatively high after Israeli and Palestinian officials held their first round of diplomatic talks in months Wednesday, and the sides looked toward the possibility of a Sharon-Abbas summit in the next two weeks.
"There is no doubt Abu Mazen has started to work," Sharon was quoted as saying in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot. Abbas is widely known as Abu Mazen. "I am very satisfied with what I am hearing is happening on the Palestinian side and I am very interested in advancing processes with him."
The developments signaled the possibility of a new era of Israeli-Palestinian relations, and among the Palestinians themselves.
In the Yediot interview, Sharon said he would not stop all Israeli military operations for the time being, but would make gestures toward the new Palestinian leader. He did not elaborate.
"I intend to advance the chance for an opportunity for an agreement with the Palestinians, I intend to make gestures toward Abu Mazen and at the same time keep my eyes open and examine the situation on their side," Sharon said.
The internationally backed "road map" peace plan requires both sides to issue end-of-violence declarations. The plan never got off the ground, but there are renewed hopes it can be revived.
Abbas was asked Thursday about reports that he is seeking a cease-fire declaration within two weeks. "We are very interested in the issue of the cease-fire, and the issue of a declaration of a cease-fire, and we've informed the Israelis of this, and the Israelis have to respond quickly and not wait for another two or three weeks," Abbas said. "Such an issue cannot bear waiting."
Sharon spokesman Asaf Shariv said Israel is examining the Palestinian proposals. "I don't know if a cease-fire is the right wording," he said. "If there is quiet on the Palestinian side, Israel will respond with quiet."
In a sign of renewed U.S. involvement in the region, Burns, the U.S. envoy, held separate talks Thursday with Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia. Burns is to meet Sharon later on Thursday, after talks Wednesday with Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres.
After meeting Qureia, Burns said he was encouraged by the steps taken by the Palestinians to halt violence, and Israel's response to those moves.
"We have no illusions that such a moment of opportunity is fragile," Burns said. "The United States is determined to do everything it can to help."