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Israel: Palestinians may send forces to quell Gaza attacks

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Mahmoud Abbas

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli officials said Thursday that the Palestinian Authority has proposed to deploy up to 1,000 members of its security forces in Gaza to prevent the firing of Qassam rockets and mortars at Israeli towns and settlements.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz approves the Palestinian plan, a defense ministry official said.

Palestinian sources said they expected the forces to be deployed over the weekend.

The development comes as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas continues his effort to persuade Palestinian militant groups to join a cease-fire.

Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, met with officials from Islamic Jihad and Hamas on Wednesday. Neither side agreed with Abbas' cease-fire plan, but Palestinian Authority officials continued to sound optimistic.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath refused to say when Abbas would get an agreement from the groups but added, "This process is nearing completion."

The military wing of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have carried out deadly attacks on Israeli civilians as well as military targets.

Shaath said that when Abbas gets the cease-fire agreement, Israel should halt attacks on Palestinians.

According to Israel Radio, Gaza's top Islamic Jihad leader, Mohammed al-Hindi, described his meeting with Abbas as positive, but said no decision had been reached. Both sides agreed to continue discussions.

While high-level contacts with Israel remain suspended, the Palestinians asked for a security coordination meeting Wednesday night and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his security cabinet approved.

However, the security cabinet also approved plans for a major Israeli offensive in Gaza if the Palestinian Authority fails to stop attacks on Israelis. The approval by Mofaz of the Palestinian proposal to redeploy forces apparently puts off implementation of that Israeli invasion plan, at least for now, to allow the Palestinians to act.

Brigadier Gen. Aviv Kochavi, commander of the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza, and Maj. Gen. Moussa Arafat, security director for the Palestinian Authority, met Wednesday night near the Erez crossing to discuss the Palestinian redeployment plan.

Arafat said the Palestinians plan to redeploy forces first in the northern part of Gaza and then in the south.

According to Israeli Radio, Arafat said the authority was concerned that their troops -- entering hot spot areas from where rockets and mortars had been fired -- would become targets of the Israeli military.

Arafat said Abbas had called his security forces commanders together and told them he wanted a "serious effort" to stop the attacks. He said it was a new day and those who failed to make that effort would be held accountable, Israel Radio reported.

In another development, Israel reopened the Gush Katif junction in southern Gaza Thursday. In addition, defense ministry officials said Israel would open Gaza's Rafah terminal crossing with Egypt in one direction, to allow entry of Palestinians returning to Gaza. The crossing has been closed since a militant attack in December killed five Israeli soldiers.

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