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Israel and U.S. laud Abbas’ effort to halt militant attacks on civilians

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JERUSALEM — Israel and the United States praised the effort by the new Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to halt rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli civilians as more Palestinian policemen were sent on Saturday to patrol Gaza's borders.

Giora Eiland, the director of Israel's National Security Council, told Israel radio that the efforts were an improvement on the past. "Now it seems they are taking positive action," Eiland said.

But he emphasized that the situation remained fragile, and that in the longer run, Abbas would have to dismantle the military structures of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah's Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, confiscate their weapons and destroy rocket factories.

"The problem is, even if a cease-fire is achieved, by definition it would be only temporary," Eiland said. "Israel is not looking for a Palestinian civil war, but expects to see real change, real action to halt terrorist capabilities."

Abbas was also praised by the Bush administration, which announced that William J. Burns, the assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, would visit the region next week.

"We have always stressed how important it is for the Palestinians to organize themselves to end the violence, and we welcome steps that are being taken in that direction," said Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman.

The Israelis announced that a close aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would visit Washington next week to prepare for a visit by Sharon in the spring, his first visit since last April.

The aide, Dov Weissglas, will meet with the secretary of state-designate, Condoleezza Rice. Israel is eager to keep on the good side of President Bush and to forestall any pressure toward political negotiations with Abbas until he moves to dismantle the militant groups that attack Israel.

Sharon is also eager to discuss his Gaza withdrawal plan, which he hopes to begin this July and carry out in coordination with Abbas.

In Gaza, Abbas was reported by the Israeli news media to have taken another step to control his own Palestinian Authority, firing the commander of Palestinian security at the Karni checkpoint, who is accused of complicity in a militant attack there on Jan. 13.

Abbas is in Gaza holding talks on a cease-fire with Hamas and Islamic Jihad during the Id al-Adha holiday. But talks with Hamas scheduled for Friday evening did not take place. Hamas and Islamic Jihad say any cease-fire must be matched by Israeli agreement to halt military activity in the Gaza Strip, stop assassinating militant leaders and release Palestinian prisoners. On Saturday, Eiland said: "I would say in simple language that we would respond to quiet. If there is no reason to carry out a certain operation, we wouldn't do so."

In Gaza on Saturday, a local group of Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades announced that it would halt attacks so long as Israel also observed a truce and released Palestinian prisoners. Several dozen gunmen made the announcement at a news conference in the basement of a Gaza City building. But Al Aksa is not a unified organization; the Jenin branch has announced that it will no longer carry out attacks inside Israel's 1967 boundaries, while other Al Aksa branches have rejected any idea of a cease-fire.