Hopes rose Thursday of an end to deadly clashes between Israelis and Palestinians that have claimed more than 70 lives ahead of new summit talks in Egypt, despite the expected absence of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Amid a tense calm in the Palestinian territories the Israeli army said it had agreed with the Palestinian security forces on a halt to the violence after a week of bloodshed, following a meeting between central region commander General Yitzhak Eitan with his Palestinian counterparts overnight.
"During the meeting it was agreed that there would be a halt to the violence, the disturbances to public order and the shooting in the zones of friction between the two sides," it said in a statement.
"It was agreed that in the West Bank, the army would keep its fixed positions established before the outbreak of the violence and will not occupy new positions," it added.
"For their part, the Palestinians have committed to respect a ceasefire and avoid violence," it said.
But army spokesman Yarden Vatikay warned: "If they don't fulfill their promise we have to respond."
The army announcement came despite the failure of marathon talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to reach a comprehensive ceasefire accord, mediated by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
The talks apparently broke down over Palestinian demands for an international inquiry into the clashes and Arafat's refusal to sign an accord on a ceasefire.
But Palestinian spokeswoman Leila Shahid said the Palestinians had never said they would sign anything.
And Israeli Tourism Minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who accompanied Barak to Paris, told Israeli public radio he had heard Arafat telephone the commanders of his security forces telling them to end the violence.
Afterwards Barak left Paris for Israel, putting in doubt his appearance at follow-up talks with Albright and Arafat in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's invitation.
However, a senior US official brushed off Barak's decision and said the Israeli leader's presence in Sharm was "not essential".
And the Israeli side indicated that despite Wednesday night's setback, the negotiations were not dead.
Leila Shahid, the Palestinian representative in Paris, said US President Bill Clinton had invited the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to Washington for further talks provided an agreement was reached to end the violence.
Barak's spokesman Gadi Baltiansky said "If it will be quiet it is possible that the negotiations will be resumed next week, but not necessarily at that level."
Diplomatic officials said the negotiating teams had worked on a document setting up a joint technical committee, to be chaired by US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director George Tenet, which would look at how the violence started and ways to avoid it recurring.
The Palestinians insisted that an international commission of inquiry be set up under the French and Egyptians, but the Israeli side rejected the idea, saying US mediation would suffice.
According to an Israeli official, the agreement outlined in Paris committed Israel to withdrawing heavy forces from around the Jewish holy site of Joseph's tomb inside the Palestinian-run West Bank city of Nablus, and from a key road junction near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip.
In return the Palestinians undertook not to let protesters approach the two sites, both of which have seen some of the worst violence of the past week.
The clashes followed a controversial visit by Israeli hard-liner Ariel Sharon to the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem a week ago -- a site holy to both Moslems and Jews -- that was heavily criticized by key Western leaders as provocative.
In Sharm el-Sheikh, meanwhile, heavy security was in place ahead of the talks in a luxury hotel, as Mubarak arrived to await Arafat and Albright. Israeli ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel was also in the resort, his spokesman Ayellat Yehiav told AFP, but added that this did not mean that Barak would be there -- SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)