GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli and Palestinian leaders met Wednesday to discuss ways to stop militants from firing rockets and mortars in Gaza, heading off the possibility of a large-scale Israeli invasion to curb the surging violence.
The decision came as the top Palestinian security chief ordered a deployment of troops along the Gaza-Israel frontier to stop the attacks — the first concrete steps to rein in militants since the election of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search).
Israel broke off contacts with Abbas' government after a Jan. 13 attack on a vital Gaza-Israel crossing point killed six Israelis. But the ban came under criticism from the United States, the United Nations, Egypt and Jordan — and it lasted only a few days.
After a meeting of his Security Cabinet on Wednesday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) office issued a statement saying "a security meeting will be held at the field commander level to coordinate security steps."
Israeli officials said the meeting convened at the Erez crossing (search) between northern Gaza and Israel. Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, representing the Israelis, met Palestinian public security director Maj. Gen. Moussa Arafat.
The sudden turnabout defused escalating tension that appeared to be leading toward an Israeli invasion, clashes with Palestinian gunmen and possibly dozens of casualties.
Israel's Security Cabinet was considering military action to stop the barrages of mortars and rockets aimed at Jewish settlements and Israeli towns just outside Gaza, when the Palestinian leadership called for security talks toward cooperation in ending the violence, officials said.
The appeal, coupled with the decision by the Palestinian police commander to deploy forces along the border to stop the rocket attacks, was enough for Israel's new, more moderate government to put off a military strike and give renewed talks a chance.
Dalia Itzik, a Cabinet minister from the dovish Labor Party, said Israeli pressure led to Palestinian pledges for action. "It's good that they're going to talk," she told Army Radio. Sharon brought Labor into his coalition government to provide crucial backing for his Gaza pullout plan, and its presence is likely to moderate government policy.
However, the Security Cabinet also approved military action if talks fail. Sharon noted both options on Wednesday.
"Israel is prepared to cooperate with the Palestinians on condition that there is no terrorism," Sharon said in a meeting with a top EU official, according to a statement from his office. "If the Palestinians take the right steps, we will be able to cooperate and coordinate on certain matters regarding the disengagement plan."
But he warned that Israel is not prepared to take losses because of lack of Palestinian cooperation, implying that if talks fail, Israel will take action.
Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan, who is close to Abbas, said restoring calm depends on Israel, not the Palestinians. "We hope that the peace process will have a chance and we hope that Israel will initiate positive initiatives by stopping the aggression and the killing," he told reporters after a meeting of leaders from Abbas' Fatah Party.
Abbas, meanwhile, was edging toward a truce agreement with militant groups, according to a participant in the talks, Fatah representative Ziad Abu Amr. "The parties were never closer to an agreement than they are now," he said.
After meeting with Abbas however, Islamic Jihad official Mohammed Hindi was noncommittal. "We discussed all the items linked to the Palestinian political arena including the subject of calming down the situation," he said. "We agreed to continue our discussions and we will meet again very soon."
For its part, Hamas appears to be keeping up the pressure on both Abbas and Israel.
Israel is planning to pull out of Gaza this summer, and in recent months militants there, led by Hamas, have been stepping up attacks, hoping to show they drove Israel out by force.
Such a claim would boost Hamas' prestige in the struggle for control of the streets after Israel's exit, though many Palestinians are weary after four years of conflict.
The posting of Palestinian police along the Gaza-Israel border would be the first since summer 2003, when Abbas negotiated a brief cease-fire while serving as prime minister.
Lt. Gen. Abdel Razek Majaide, the top Palestinian commander in Gaza and the West Bank, announced the decision in a radio interview.
"Preparations are under way to deploy Palestinian national security soldiers along the borders to stop any sort of violations," Majaide said. He said they would be posted within two days.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops arrested 13 Hamas members overnight in Nablus, witnesses and the army said. The operation helped "severely disrupt" Hamas efforts to increase attacks on Israelis, said the Israeli commander of West Bank forces, Col. Yuval Bazak.
The troops demolished a four-story house and another caught fire after it was hit by a tank shell, witnesses said. The army confirmed firing at the homes, saying it had forced out suspects hiding inside who were later arrested.