JERUSALEM — Faced with a return to wide-scale violence, Palestinian leaders Saturday said they would push for another cease-fire by militant organizations if Israel agreed to sign on to a truce as well.
But the proposal appeared unlikely to sway the Israeli government, which says that inaction by the Palestinian Authority has left the Jewish state with no choice but to hunt down members of radical Islamic groups in order to prevent attacks like Tuesday's bus bombing in Jerusalem. Another victim of the blast died of her wounds Saturday, raising the death toll to 21 people, including six children.
Israeli troops continued to sweep through the West Bank as part of a renewed campaign to flush out militants belonging to radical groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Those groups have vowed to unleash fresh terror on Israeli civilians to avenge the assassination in Gaza City on Thursday of a top Hamas leader, Ismail abu Shanab, who was killed by Israeli helicopter-launched missiles in retaliation for Tuesday's suicide attack.
To stem the rising tide of violence, diplomats from Egypt and the U.S. met with Israeli and Palestinian officials Friday and Saturday to urge both sides to show restraint. But no understanding or agreement was reached.
Palestinian officials called on the U.S. to help broker a new hudna, or cease-fire, to replace the one that the militias formally annulled in the wake of Abu Shanab's death. The original truce, declared June 29 by the main armed factions, brought a measure of calm for several weeks until a wave of Israeli killings of militants and bloody Palestinian suicide bombings broke out two weeks ago.
"We want a hudna between the whole Palestinian Authority and Israel that Israel [will] commit itself to as much as we do," Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' Cabinet met to weigh its options.
There was no official response from Israel to the idea of a mutual cease-fire, but the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has given no indication that it will back off from its decision to kill or arrest Palestinian militant leaders. Palestinian officials say that, politically and militarily, they cannot mount a crackdown on the radical groups while Israel insists on going after them itself.
On Saturday evening, Palestinian security forces arrested nine alleged arms traders in the Gaza Strip, but the suspects were not linked to any militant organizations, security officials in Gaza said. They said that the sting had been in the works before Israel killed Abu Shanab. Also, three tunnels allegedly used to run weapons into the Gaza Strip from Egypt were blocked up with concrete.
Israeli tanks were reported to be rumbling through the streets of the northern West Bank city of Jenin, where they were greeted by protesters throwing stones. In Nablus, also in the West Bank, at least 16 Palestinians were injured when Israeli soldiers fired rubber bullets into a crowd during a violent demonstration, according to local media reports.
With Israeli forces thrusting into the West Bank and Gaza again, and with scant evidence that the Palestinian Authority is willing to confront militant groups head-on, the status of the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map" has in effect regressed to where it stood before the truce was declared.
The plan demands that Palestinians completely dismantle terrorist organizations, while Israel must tear down West Bank outposts erected in recent years by Jewish settlers and to begin withdrawing from parts of the Palestinian territories. But progress has never been more than fitful and slight, generating accusations from each side that the other was ignoring its obligations.
To salvage the process, Washington is expected to dispatch Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage to the region, Israeli radio said. It was not clear which countries Armitage would visit on his trip.
Another U.S. diplomat, John Wolf, met with Palestinian officials Saturday to persuade them to clamp down on violence, while an envoy from paid calls to both the Israeli and Palestinian Authority governments.
A Hamas leader in Lebanon, Usama Hamdan, said the group would be open to truce talks. "We are ready to discuss any political ideas," Hamdan told the Reuters news agency. "But we are not ready to take positions before we know all the details."