JERUSALEM - Palestinian leaders proposed brokering a new cease-fire with militant groups yesterday and began what they called the first phase of a crackdown on the armed factions.
Palestinian police said they shut down three tunnels used by militants to smuggle weapons from Egypt into the southern Gaza Strip, raided a weapons warehouse and arrested several people.
Israeli officials immediately rejected the idea of a new cease-fire and reacted with caution to news of the arrests, which were designed to stave off a military offensive by Israel and salvage a damaged peace plan.
With tanks and troops poised for action, Israeli officials repeated that they would accept nothing short of full disarmament - enforced either by Palestinian police or by their army.
Dore Gold, a government spokesman, said Israel does not negotiate with "internationally recognized terrorist organizations. We want to dismantle Hamas and Islamic Jihad, not preserve them."
Israel halted most of its military strikes against the militant groups Thursday night, saying it would give the Palestinian Authority 24 hours to start making arrests. "Our message should be loud and clear," Gold said.
Palestinian officials had said yesterday that it would be impossible to hunt down militants because of Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza. But yesterday's apparent operation may be an indication that they are relenting to Israeli pressure.
A Palestinian security source said last night that closing the tunnels in Rafah was just a start of a campaign to take control of Hamas and Islamic Jihad institutions and seize their weapons - moves that had been planned after last week's suicide bombing in Jerusalem, which killed 21 people aboard a bus.
Still, Palestinian leaders said, a new truce might be the only way to revive the peace process - and a pact needs Israel's support to work. "We want a [cease-fire] between all the Palestinian Authority and all its organizations and Israel," said Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister. "We want a full stop to violence."
Israel was not part of the first cease-fire - agreed to June 29 by the three main armed Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad - but responded to the reduced violence by limiting military operations, tearing down checkpoints and withdrawing troops from some occupied areas.
The Israeli army has always reserved the right to strike at potential threats, and it continued operations during the relative quiet of the cease-fire, angering militant groups who struck back by blowing up the bus last week. Israel responded by killing a Hamas leader in a helicopter strike in Gaza City and has threatened an all-out war with the groups.
Yesterday's cease-fire proposal by the Palestinian Authority was announced after its weekly Cabinet meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and appeared to be a last-ditch effort to stave off another round of fighting that could doom the American-backed "road map" to peace.
Palestinian officials urged the United States to pressure Israel into accepting the latest proposal to end the violence and abandoning its renewed policy of assassinations.
Representatives from Hamas and Islamic Jihad indicated yesterday that they would be open to new dialogue but did not rule out retaliation for Israel's killing of Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab on Thursday.
Although Israelis and Palestinians say they remain committed to the road map, most concessions made by both sides over the past two months were quickly reversed over the past several days of fighting.
Israeli tanks are lined up outside the northern Gaza Strip and Ramallah. Troops are again operating in several other West Bank cities, including Nablus, where sporadic firefights broke out yesterday. Palestinians said more than a dozen people were injured when soldiers fired rubber-coated bullets at protesters.
Left uncomfortably in the middle is Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who is under intense pressure from the Americans and Israelis to crack down on militant groups. He faces the prospect of an all-out war between Israel and the militant groups he has been unable to control.
Abbas preferred trying to negotiate with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and his party's Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, hoping that the momentum of a limited truce would translate into a lasting peace. But neither Israel nor the Palestinians fulfilled all their obligations under the provisions of the road map.
Israel did not freeze settlement expansion or take down all illegal outposts, and the Palestinians did not dismantle the militant groups, which allowed them to rearm. Each side accused the other of using the cover of a cease-fire to shore up their positions instead of making concessions.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed and politically weakened Abbas has been hobbled by infighting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has refused to relinquish control of security forces that are needed to confront the armed factions.
Last week, U.S. officials publicly urged Arafat to relent, one of the few times they have addressed the leader, whom they treat as irrelevant and wish to replace with Abbas. It was an acknowledgment that Arafat remains firmly in control and is, in American eyes, an obstacle.
President Bush is giving the Palestinians little leeway. "A Palestinian state will never be built on the foundation of violence," he said yesterday in his weekly radio address. "The hopes of that state and the security of Israel both depend on an unrelenting campaign against terror waged by all parties in the region."
There were indications yesterday that the United States might send new envoys to the region to try to save the peace process. The permanent envoy, John Wolf, met with Palestinian officials yesterday and urged them to launch a sustained campaign against militants.
But at their Cabinet meeting, described as difficult by several participants, Palestinian leaders chose a different course. Cabinet minister Ghassan Khatib said police won't target militant groups until Israel withdraws from Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"Israel is going after the militants now," he said in an interview. "It is difficult having the two sides doing that at the same time. It doesn't work. The Israeli assassinations have a very negative effect on the ability of the Palestinian security services."
American and Egyptian officials are trying to resolve the differences and get the peace process back on track. Khatib said pressure is being asserted by all fronts to all sides.
"It is assumed that Israel will be more forthcoming and stop assassinations, and that the Palestinians will be more forthcoming in dealing with [their] own obligations," Khatib said. "The Americans also need to be more efficient in their monitoring role. This will take time."
Khatib held out some hope for a positive outcome, pointing to the statements made by Hamas and Islamic Jihad yesterday about being open to further talks. He also played down Israel's 24-hour ultimatum, saying it was an indication of U.S. pressure to calm down.
Terms of cease-fire
Gold declined to comment on what U.S. officials have told the Israelis, who are afraid of entering into agreements such as a cease-fire that would put limits on their military activity. Gold said the Palestinian Authority had plenty of chances to show that it could confront militant organizations after the army left Bethlehem in the West Bank and pulled back significantly in the Gaza Strip.
He complained that what the militant groups agreed to in June was a hudna, the Arabic term for cease-fire, which translates into a break between rounds. Gold said the road map calls for an unconditional cease-fire, which Israel wouldn't be required to sign, and for the dismantling of the groups.
"Rather than diminishing the size of terror groups, the hudna allows them to grow," Gold said. "And that contradicts the intent of the road map."