RAMALLAH, West Bank – An Egyptian envoy urged the Palestinians on Thursday to lead the way toward ending more than three years of violence with Israel, saying he is hopeful that Israel will respond favorably to such moves.
Egypt has been trying for weeks to get Palestinian militants to halt attacks against Israel to help restart peace talks. Osama el-Baz (search), a top aide to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, traveled to the Palestinian areas on Thursday as part of those efforts.
El-Baz voiced some optimism after a meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
"We are deeply concerned to get out of this problematic situation which threatens the whole region," he said. "What I heard from President Arafat makes me more hopeful for the future."
Israel and the United States accuse Arafat of fomenting terrorism and impeding truce efforts, and el-Baz did not give specifics on whether Arafat had made any concrete undertakings.
The Palestinians have refused to dismantle militant groups as required in the U.S.-led "road map" peace plan — and their Egyptian-backed efforts to win a no-violence pledge from the militants have so far failed. Meanwhile, violence continues and Israel has not frozen settlements or carried out other road map obligations.
The road map calls for an end to violence and the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005.
On Thursday, el-Baz urged the Palestinians to take an active role in improving the situation.
"We should set a good example. We, from our side, should take decisions and measures that can lead the way to a better future," el-Baz said. "Then, we hope the Israelis will do the same, because [resolving] the whole problem depends on the willingness of both sides."
Arafat, who has been confined to Ramallah (search) for two years by Israeli troops, said only that they had discussed "the problems that we face as the Palestinian people."
A senior Palestinian official told The Associated Press that there were growing concerns among the Palestinian leadership about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's threatened plan to draw unilaterally an Israeli-Palestinian partition line leaving the Palestinians with a fraction of the land they seek.
Sharon threatened last month to do this if he concluded there was no possibility of implementing the road map with the current Palestinian leadership.
The Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the Palestinians hoped to reach an understanding with the United States whereby violence would stop on both sides before an actual forceful dismantling of the militant groups.
Israel has in the past insisted it would accept nothing less than a full disarming of the militants responsible for killing hundreds of Israelis — something its own army has failed to accomplish in more than three years of concerted effort.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) has been trying for more than two months to forge a Palestinian-only truce agreement nonetheless — and the failure of these efforts has delayed a hoped-for meeting with Sharon.
The efforts have been strongly backed by Egypt, which in 1979 became the first Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel and has frequently mediated between Israel and the Arab world.
A failed Israeli airstrike this week in the Gaza Strip, aimed at two militants from the Hamas group, has also complicated the cease-fire efforts.
Hamas, responsible for most of the more than 100 suicide bombings in Israel over the past three years, had appeared to scale back its operations in recent weeks but vowed revenge after the airstrike.
Meanwhile, the New Year passed without major incidents in Israel, where security forces had been on high alert, setting up roadblocks and patrolling highways and popular gathering spots.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli troops tightened a curfew, conducting house-to-house searches for fugitives, witnesses said. Overnight, soldiers evacuated residents from their homes as they looked for militants, they said.
The army has carried out a series of raids in Nablus, a center of militant activity, for more than two weeks.
The army also said it had removed a blockade of Jenin, another town in the West Bank that has been a center of militant activity. It said the move — imposed a week ago because of many terror "alerts" — would allow pedestrians and vehicles to move in and out of the town.