JERUSALEM – Israel is prepared to coordinate its pullout from Gaza with a new Palestinian government, officials said Sunday, a shift from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) concept of "unilateral disengagement" and a sign that cooperation may be restored in the post-Arafat era.
Security forces already are quietly cooperating with each other, Israeli officials said. One went so far as to say, "It's back to business."
However, Palestinian and Israeli security sources said beyond routine contacts at field commander level, which have been maintained despite the violence, no coordination is underway.
In the Rafah refugee camp (search) on the Gaza-Egyptian border late Sunday, an Israeli tank fired a shell at three Palestinians crawling in a forbidden zone, the military said. Palestinians said two wounded men were brought to a hospital. The fate of the third was unknown.
Palestinians said in addition, a doctor was killed and another man was hurt in a salvo of 12 Israeli tank shells in the camp. They said the two were playing cards next to a fire when they were hit by shrapnel.
Since Yasser Arafat's (search) death Nov. 11, both sides have been projecting positive signals about cooperation for Palestinian elections on Jan. 9 and resumption of peace talks. Israel boycotted Arafat, charging he was involved in terrorism, and no significant contacts between the two sides have taken place for more than a year.
Now, the Israelis are promoting the idea that with Arafat gone, things can change.
In separate interviews with Newsweek magazine, Sharon said he would be willing to coordinate the handover of Gaza with Palestinian forces, and interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he would take responsibility for the areas, but only after his security arm is rebuilt.
"I think there is an understanding that this is an opportunity that both sides cannot miss," Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said.
"The goal is to return back to the 'road map' to peace ... and from there move to political negotiations."
Israel and the Palestinians signed the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan in June 2003, but the plan quickly stalled amid violations by both sides. The Palestinians failed to crack down on militant groups, while Israel did not meet its obligations to halt construction of settlements in the West Bank and dismantle unauthorized settlement outposts.
Earlier this year, Sharon announced plans to withdraw from Gaza and four West Bank settlements as part of his "unilateral disengagement" plan from the Palestinians.
In the Newsweek interview, Sharon said Arafat's death made it possible to coordinate the pullout with the new Palestinian leadership and with Abbas, who said he is "against terror."
"I am going to make every effort to coordinate our disengagement plan with the new Palestinian government -- one that can assume control over areas we evacuate," Sharon was quoted as saying.
Sharon's office confirmed the accuracy of the quotations in the interview.
Abbas, the candidate of the dominant Fatah movement, has emerged as the front-runner in the Jan. 9 elections. A poll published Sunday showed him receiving 41 percent of the vote, more than twice the level of his closest competitor.
The poll, carried out by the official Palestinian State Information Service, had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Abbas told Newsweek he is trying to take control of what he described as "chaos" in the West Bank, and especially the Gaza Strip. Both have been wracked by internal violence in recent months.
Israel has said it wants to help ensure that the election goes smoothly. In the interview, Sharon promised to help the Palestinians hold a successful poll in January by "opening the roads and taking our forces out of their towns."
Israel already has pledged to remove all roadblocks in the West Bank on the day of the vote and agreed to allow Palestinians living in disputed east Jerusalem to vote.
Gissin said Israel also has scaled back military activity in Palestinian areas and security cooperation between the two sides has quietly resumed.
"Based on what is happening on the ground between the various security forces, then I say it's back to business," he said.