JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) said Wednesday he welcomed Egypt's efforts to work out security arrangements for the Gaza Strip (search) after an Israeli withdrawal, but he would not let himself be pushed into new negotiations with the Palestinians.
Egypt has been negotiating with Israel and the Palestinians to prevent Gaza from collapsing into chaos following the pullout planned for next year. Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman met with Palestinian officials Wednesday and planned to meet later with Israeli officials to discuss the withdrawal.
Sharon said the talks with Suleiman will focus on security and the prevention of arms smuggling into Gaza. Israeli officials said they would not accept Egypt's demand to halt military strikes in Gaza once a delegation of 200 Egyptian security advisers arrives to train Palestinian security forces.
Sharon told government officials he welcomed Egyptian security efforts in Gaza, but would not allow Egypt to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians, according to officials in the meeting. Sharon has insisted he would not negotiate his unilateral withdrawal plan with the Palestinians, saying they are uninterested in peace.
"I don't plan to allow the Egyptians to become mediators between Israel and the Palestinians or to put on the agenda general Israeli-Palestinian peace talks or, at this point, an Israel-Palestinian process in Gaza," he said, according to the officials. "The dangers of such negotiations are greater than the benefits of Egypt's involvement."
Egypt is key to Sharon's plan, helping to ensure that the Islamic militant group Hamas (search) does not come to power in the volatile territory.
As part of its security plan for Gaza, Egypt has pushed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search) to reform his security forces and give up much of his control over them.
Arafat has resisted such demands in the past, but recently indicated he might comply. If he stalls, he risks losing the support of Egypt, one of his few remaining allies.
After meeting with Arafat on Wednesday, Suleiman pronounced himself "very satisfied" with what he was told, and said the Egyptian advisers were coming "within months." He did not elaborate.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State William Burns met with the Egyptian foreign minister and said Israel's planned disengagement was a step toward implementing the American-backed Middle East road map to peace.
"We have no illusions about the difficulties in this path," Burns said.
Egypt and the Palestinians have a historically uneasy relationship, and Egypt's proposed role in securing Gaza — once ruled by Cairo — has many Palestinians worried they'll be replacing one occupation with another.
Earlier this week, Palestinian militant factions, which would have to agree to a cease-fire as part of the Egyptian plan, announced that they oppose any Egyptian security role in Gaza.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath tried to soften the growing criticism of the Egyptian role, and welcomed Cairo's assistance. "They (the Egyptians) are coming as advisers and as experts, not as rulers," he said.
Shaath said Arafat has accepted the Egyptian security proposals in general, but gave no evidence a plan had been prepared.
Suleiman met Wednesday with Arafat in Ramallah after talking with U.N. mediators. He later was to meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.
Israeli officials said they would tell Suleiman they would not make a blanket promise to halt military strikes in the Gaza Strip once Egyptian advisers are deployed there. However, Israel will propose a compromise that should enable the sides to agree on security arrangements for Gaza, an official said on condition of anonymity.
"Without doubt some of the Egyptian conditions are unacceptable, but that's part of the issue," Shalom told Israel Radio on Wednesday.
Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel needed to retain control over Gaza's border crossings — a move Palestinians say will seal them in a virtual prison — to prevent Gazans from stockpiling missiles and other weapons to attack Israel.
"I think that to rely on Egypt is very problematic," he told Army Radio.
In new Gaza violence, Israeli forces in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun shot and killed a Palestinian man.
Palestinian hospital officials said Ibrahim Sada, 21, was killed by random machine gun fire from Israeli tanks in the area. The army said it fired at a group of armed men in the area and identified hitting one.
Israeli troops have been operating in the area near the border since Tuesday, uprooting orange trees to pave a new road, Palestinians said.
The troops killed two Palestinians there Tuesday. The army said it had fired at two gunmen who approached its soldiers. Palestinians said the two were killed when soldiers fired a tank shell at a group of people during a military operation.
Also Wednesday, the army killed a man in the West Bank city of Nablus. The army said troops shot the man when he pulled a pistol on them as they tried to arrest him. The troops also arrested a top Islamic Jihad official in the city, the army said.