Jerusalem Israeli and Palestinian troop commanders met at U.S. insistence Wednesday to try to pave the way for a truce, and relative calm prevailed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip: No one was killed in clashes for the first time in a week despite sporadic exchanges of gunfire.
Israel said that if there were no new outbreaks of violence, it could withdraw troops from friction points and then look into ways of resuming peace talks. However, army officials were skeptical a cease-fire would hold for long.
President Clinton has raised the possibility of holding separate meetings in Washington with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to assess prospects for returning to negotiations.
The Israeli troop commanders of the West Bank and Gaza Strip held the meetings with their Palestinian counterparts Wednesday in the presence of U.S. security officials. The goal was try to implement the cease-fire brokered last week by Clinton. Both sides have accused each other of breaking promises made to the president.
Israel has said the Palestinian Authority has done little to quell shooting attacks on Israeli positions. The Palestinians have complained that Israel has not lifted its security closure of the Palestinian areas and withdrawn troops from trouble spots.
In all, 128 people, the vast majority Palestinians, have been killed in four weeks of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. But Wednesday saw only sporadic rock-throwing clashes.
After nightfall Wednesday, Palestinian gunmen fired at Israeli targets from several locations. Shots were fired from the West Bank at the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo on the southern edge of Jerusalem. For the third day in a row, the army responded with tank fire.
Speaking before shooting began, the chief of operations in the Israeli army said that there had been a significant drop in violence over a 24-hour period.
"We must wait a day or so to see if there is a real change," Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland said. If calm prevailed, Israel would pull back forces to previous positions, he said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said Israel could even envision returning to peace talks.
"If, by some miracle ... the violence would stop, as a result of talks Clinton had yesterday with Arafat and Barak, mostly with Arafat ... then we could talk about the best way to restart the peace talks within two weeks," he said.
It was not clear whether Ben-Ami spoke for Barak. The Israeli prime minister has said repeatedly he no longer considers Arafat a peace partner.
Barak has tried to bring the hawkish opposition into his government to ensure his political survival before a hostile parliament convenes next week. If he succeeds, a resumption of peace talks is unlikely.
Palestinian officials softened their tone Wednesday just this week, Arafat had told Barak to "go to hell" and didn't rule out a return to negotiations.
"What is needed now is a more serious and intensive effort by the United States to save the peace process," said Arafat adviser Nabil Aburdeneh.
However, the leader of Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank, Marwan Barghouti, said the uprising would continue. Barghouti said Wednesday's lull was not due to the rainy weather, but a result of instructions by the uprising leadership that activists take time off to help farmers harvest olives.
On Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, large-scale protests would resume, he said.
Barghouti confirmed that Islamic militants have been playing a key role in directing the anti-Israeli protests. Two separate steering committees one in the West Bank and one in Gaza pick times and locations for clashes.