Sharon: Conditions Ripe for 'Breakthrough'

The Palestinian leadership banned civilians from carrying weapons and indicated on Thursday it would appoint a new interior minister known for his hardline stance against militants, the latest in a series of steps to stop violence that have brought rare praise from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search).

The ban on weapons signalled the Palestinian Authority's (search) aim to take control of the streets from militants, who often overtly brandish their automatic rifles and other arms and who have surpassed the authority's power in some neighborhoods and refugee camps.

While the Palestinians were seeking a joint cease-fire declaration with Israel, the Palestinian security forces prepared for their next step to impose order: deploying into the volatile southern Gaza Strip to prevent rocket attacks into Israel. A similar deployment in northern Gaza last week has been effective in stopping militants from firing rockets at Israelis.

Adding to a new wave of optimism for peace after four years of fighting, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) won rare praise from Sharon and visiting U.S. envoy William Burns for his efforts to halt violence. The two sides are trying to arrange a Sharon-Abbas summit in the next two weeks.

"I believe that the conditions are now ripe to allow us and the Palestinians to reach a historic breakthrough in the relations between us," Sharon said in a Tel Aviv speech Thursday evening.

"If the Palestinians act in a comprehensive fashion to fight terror, violence and incitement," Sharon said, "we can move forward to the process of implementing the 'road map,' and then we can coordinate various activities with them regarding the disengagement plan."

In an interview published Thursday in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot, Sharon said he was "very satisfied with what I am hearing is happening on the Palestinian side and I am very interested in advancing processes with" Abbas.

In a test for Abbas' ruling Fatah movement, the first municipal elections in Gaza's history were held Thursday in 10 districts in the coastal strip. The militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad were expected to pose a stiff challenge to Fatah.

Abbas has won assurances from armed groups that they will halt attacks if Israel stops military operations, including arrest raids and targeted killings of Palestinian fugitives.

In meetings Wednesday, Palestinian negotiators proposed both sides issue formal cease-fire declaration. Israeli officials have said in the past they are not interested in such a formal declaration, but Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the Israelis promised to consider it.

"We are very interested in the issue of the cease-fire, and the issue of a declaration of a cease-fire, and we've informed the Israelis of this, and the Israelis have to respond quickly and not wait for another two or three weeks," Abbas said Thursday.

Sharon spokesman Asaf Shariv did not rule out the idea.

"I don't know if a cease-fire is the right wording," he said. "If there is quiet on the Palestinian side, Israel will respond with quiet."

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia issued the ban on civilians carrying weapons, Erekat told The Associated Press. The move marks a significant departure from the policy of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died on Nov. 11.

It was unclear whether the new Palestinian leadership would be successful in disarming civilians. Israel has long demanded militant factions be disarmed.

Abbas and Qureia have also decided to name Nasser Yousef as the new Palestinian interior minister, a post in charge of security forces, a senior Palestinian official said. Yousef was in charge of cracking down on militants in the 1990s, and his appointment would send a clear signal that the leadership intends to act against violent groups.

In central and southern Gaza, Palestinian police had been expected to take up positions on Thursday but the deployment was delayed until Friday because of technical difficulties.

Training for the deployment, three police jeeps carrying armed police officers in full uniform drove down the main street of the southern town of Khan Younis on Thursday. In a practice run, officers set up a checkpoint on the main road, while a commander instructed them on how to conduct security checks.

Mohammed Dahlan, a senior Abbas adviser, said in an interview with The Associated Press that during Wednesday's meetings, Israel agreed in principle to stop pursuing militants and halt targeted killings.

Israel also promised to release hundreds of prisoners — a key Palestinian demand — a senior Palestinian official said.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said no final agreement had been reached on releasing prisoners and other "confidence building" measures. But such moves would become "appropriate" as each side prepares for the summit, he added.

Underscoring the fragility of new peace moves, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian man who entered a "no-go" zone in Gaza, Palestinian medical services and the military said.

In the West Bank, Palestinians threw a firebomb at a car outside Bethlehem, police said. No one was hurt.

Meanwhile in Gaza, Palestinians in 10 districts were choosing among 414 candidates for 118 municipal council seats. The vote follows a Dec. 23 election in 26 West Bank municipalities, and a Jan. 9 presidential race in which Abbas was chosen to succeed Arafat.

Hamas made a strong showing in the West Bank race and was expected to do well in Gaza. Hamas has recently shifted its focus toward politics and agreed to halt attacks, at least temporarily.