CAIRO, Egypt – In a setback to Middle East peace efforts, Palestinian militants rejected a comprehensive truce offer to Israel despite intense pressure from Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) and Egypt to sign onto a deal.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath insisted, however, that there is "a general readiness" for a truce and said Qureia would go to the Israelis to see if they were willing to halt military actions.
Shaath told The Associated Press that the militants had told Qureia "go continue your negotiations with the Israelis, if you feel they are ready to reciprocate, come back."
Palestinian delegates said further talks also were planned among Palestinian factions but no date was set.
Israel reacted by saying the militants' intransigence presented a growing danger to Qureia's government. Officials warned that Israeli forces would take "necessary steps" if faced with a threat of new homicide bombings (search).
One Palestinian militant faction said the talks failed for a lack of any guarantee that Israel would join a cease-fire.
The breakdown of the talks Sunday underlined the growing power of the militant factions Hamas (search) and Islamic Jihad to shape conditions for a truce. The two groups have carried out most of the homicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis during more than three years of violence.
In addition to resisting a cease-fire, the militant groups refused to give Qureia a mandate to negotiate an overall peace with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search).
Qureia and the Egyptian sponsors of the talks had hoped for a halt in violence that would jump-start the stalled "road map," the peace plan backed by the international community to create a Palestinian state by 2005.
Israel, which had said it would accept only a complete cease-fire, criticized the Palestinians for failing to reach a deal, saying that working with the militants was pointless.
"Hamas today is a danger more to the Palestinian Authority than it is to us," said Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin.
"The only way to deal with terrorists is to put them behind bars and dismantle their organizations and take away their weapons," he told The Associated Press.
Israel also said it would continue to talk to Qureia but would act if its security was threatened. Although no homicide bombers have struck inside Israel for more than two months, Gissin said militants were continuing to plan for attacks.
"If there is no cease-fire and we continue to get (security) alerts we will take the necessary steps," he said.
Nafez Azzam, a spokesman for the Islamic Jihad in Gaza, said the militants would not go along with a comprehensive truce without Israeli guarantees to halt military action. He noted a cease-fire initiated by Palestinians in June fell apart when Israel kept up attacks.
"It was difficult for us and other factions to accept a new truce without guarantees from the Israeli side, because the previous truce failed in the same way," he said.
Azzam said neither Qureia nor Brig. Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence chief who mediated the talks, presented any Israeli guarantees.
He said Israel should agree to stop targeted killings of militant leaders, raids into Palestinian areas and house demolitions, as well as lifting blockades around Palestinian towns and freeing prisoners.
Asked whether the militants would launch more attacks, Azzam said: "The cycle of violence and escalation depends on Israel and we are only defending ourselves."
Egypt had had called together the Palestinian groups in the hope that the meetings would produce a halt to all attacks. Suleiman wanted to present the truce to Washington this week in a broad proposal that could win U.S. backing and put pressure on Israel.
But as soon the secret talks got underway, divisions emerged and the Palestinians, ranging from Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah to the Islamic militants and leftists, split into two camps.
Fatah and its allies wanted a full cease-fire along with giving Qureia authorization to negotiate terms with the Israelis. Preparations are being made for the Palestinian prime minister to meet with Sharon, but the date has not been decided yet.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad would agree only to end attacks on civilians in Israel but not on Jewish settlers or Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.