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Israelis, Palestinians observe truce for now

Calm in region seen as crucial to U.S. plans for coalition

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JERUSALEM — Israel and the Palestinians observed a tentative truce Wednesday, a day after pulling back forces at the prodding of the United States.

Calm in the region is seen as crucial to Washington's efforts to bring Arab and Muslim states into an anti-terror coalition that would retaliate for last week's attacks on the United States.

A senior Palestinian official said the Palestinian leadership hopes to start a new chapter with Israel and that the dramatic events of the past week might provide the opening.

However, previous cease-fire efforts have failed, most recently a U.S.-brokered deal in June. There was also some concern that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat might not be able to rein in Islamic militants and small bands of gunmen.

By Wednesday afternoon, the Israeli army had not reported any violence for more than 12 hours — since the last skirmish Tuesday night just before midnight.

Still, an Israeli government spokesman said Wednesday the cease-fire had not yet taken hold and that the countdown had not yet started for a 48-hour period of calm that Israel has demanded before any negotiations between Arafat and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

"The cease-fire has not yet taken hold," spokesman Avi Pazner said, without elaborating. "You are going to have a meeting between Peres and Arafat 48 hours after the cease-fire takes hold."

Arafat announced Tuesday that he was ordering his security forces to prevent attacks on Israelis and that officers were to show maximum restraint, even if fired on.

In Washington, President Bush praised Arafat's truce announcement, saying it was a "glimmer of hope."

Israel responded to Arafat's orders by withdrawing tanks from Palestinian territory and promising to halt military strikes.

Arafat convened his security commanders in the Gaza Strip late Tuesday — those in the West Bank joined by conference call — to explain the orders, his aides said.

On Wednesday morning, Palestinian policemen were seen patrolling several trouble spots.

Sadi Naji, a Palestinian police commander in the West Bank town of Jenin, one of the hotspots, said his men were told to prevent shooting on Israelis at all cost and to use force against gunmen, if necessary.

The spiritual leader of the militant Hamas group said his organization was not bound by Arafat's cease fire declaration.

"Hamas have a very clear position, which is as long as the occupation exists on our homeland there will be no talk of a cease-fire," said Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

However some spokesmen have privately said their groups would hold off on more bombing campaigns because of the current charged international climate against terror attacks.

Late Tuesday, more than 35 Israeli tanks withdrew from the outskirts of Jenin where they had taken up position several days earlier as part of an incursion into Palestinian territory.

In the West Bank town of Hebron, three blue Palestinian police cars cruised the hilltop Abu Sneineh neighborhood from which Palestinian gunmen often fire at nearby Jewish settler enclaves. Abu Sneineh residents said it was the first time in a year of fighting that police patrols came to the neighborhood.

"We support the cease-fire, if the Israeli troops pull out of our cities and stop killing our people," said Ahmed Abu Sneineh, 43, a grocer in the area.

Late Tuesday, shots had been fired from Abu Sneineh at settler areas and Israel troops returned fire, the army said. The fighting lasted for about 45 minutes.

There were several confrontations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip late Tuesday. The Israeli army said in all cases Palestinians opened fire, and that in all but two, Israeli troops responded.

The last incident came just before midnight when Palestinians threw several hand grenades toward an Israeli post near the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, the army said. Palestinians denied grenades were thrown, and said Israeli troops fired from machine guns at the camp without provocation.

Peres has said he would work out a formal truce in a meeting with Arafat soon. Peres said such talks could be held "within a short time," and Israeli media reports said a Peres-Arafat meeting was tentatively set for Thursday.

Arafat left Gaza on Tuesday to brief the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and possibly Saudi Arabia on the cease-fire efforts, his office said.

Bush said the next step is to "stay involved in the region; to work with both the Palestinians and Israelis to encourage them to seize the moment, to hold Mr. Arafat to his word that he will fight violence and to encourage the Israelis to sit down and have meaningful dialogue."