JERUSALEM — Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat made a rare public call Friday for gunmen to stop shooting at Israeli targets from areas under Palestinian control.
The announcement, made in Gaza after Muslim Friday prayers, came only hours after Israeli soldiers killed two Palestinian police officers near the West Bank city of Jericho--one of them high-ranking. Israel accused the policemen of belonging to a gang of gunmen that had been targeting the Jewish settlement of Vered Yericho and military posts in the area.
Palestinians denied that the officers were involved in the gang, saying instead that they were ambushed in cold blood near Jericho's once-lucrative casino as they were trying to prevent other gunmen from opening fire.
Arafat was said to have ordered the shooting to stop earlier this week. But Friday, he went before television cameras for the first time to make the plea, saying in Arabic, "We are trying our best to get our people to stop shooting from Palestinian-controlled areas."
Israel has demanded that the violence that has roiled the region since late September end before any sort of peace negotiations can resume. Arafat's statement came a day after he met with U.S. envoy Dennis B. Ross, who is trying to help avert all-out war here.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak reacted coolly to the Arafat appeal. "Israel is waiting for deeds," he said, according to a statement released by his office. "Words are not enough."
Israeli military officers cautioned that Arafat's reference only to shootings from Palestinian-controlled areas might not prevent gunmen from shooting at Israeli targets from other areas that are jointly controlled.
Barak, however, did make what appeared to be a conciliatory gesture, leaving open the possibility of allowing international observers to supervise any eventual peace agreement between his government and Arafat. The Palestinians have been demanding that U.N. peacekeepers be deployed immediately to the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a buffer against Israeli forces, something Israel has refused to accept.
The Israeli newspaper Maariv quoted senior sources Friday as saying that 2,000 unarmed international observers could be sent to the Palestinian territories for a period of six months, during which they would monitor events and report to the United Nations. Another source the newspaper quoted said Israel would agree to the force only if certain conditions, such as a cease-fire declaration and renewal of peace talks, are met.
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Friday that he will personally take over negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians about sending a U.N. group to monitor the violence in the West Bank and Gaza. By the end of next week, he aims to have both sides' agreement on U.N. action to bring the region one step closer to peace.
"The Security Council has asked me to explore with the parties how we can move forward," Annan said after a closed-door session of the Security Council. "Obviously, that means thinking through what sort of observer group will be acceptable and what would be the nature of the activities. So we are going to explore it."
Israeli-Palestinian exchanges of gunfire continued Friday. In Qalqilya in the West Bank, a Palestinian visiting from Jordan was killed; two Palestinians were fatally shot near Hebron, also in the West Bank; and a fourth was killed in the Gaza Strip. Israel Radio also reported that at the Jewish settlement of Morag, near Gaza, three Palestinians trying to plant three bombs in greenhouses were killed by Israeli soldiers Thursday night.
More than 220 people, most of them Palestinian, have died in the 7-week-old conflict.
On Friday, Israel's military chief of operations revealed that three Palestinian gunmen attacking the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo from the West Bank town of Beit Jala on Wednesday night were killed along with a German resident of the Palestinian hamlet, the only fatality previously reported by either side.
Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland also charged that the killings of the two police officers in Jericho reflected a growing participation of Palestinian security agents in the violence, as cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces collapses. The mingling of armed men with demonstrators contributes to the high loss of Palestinian life, he said.
"It's very hard to distinguish between civilians and the enemy," he said. "The real problem is not only where is the enemy, but who the hell is the enemy."
Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.