JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon offered the Palestinians an immediate cease-fire yesterday and barred the army from initiating attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The developments came amid a diplomatic push by the United States to end eight months of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians based on the recommendations of a panel headed by former Sen. George Mitchell.
But Mr. Sharon, after talks in Jerusalem with U.S. officials, told reporters he would not order a freeze on Jewish settlement activity, a key Palestinian demand and a component of the Mitchell report.
“I propose to our neighbors to work together for an immediate cease-fire and hope the Palestinians will answer the call positively,” Mr. Sharon said at a news conference, in remarks lauded by President Bush.
Hours later, the Defense Ministry issued a statement saying soldiers would open fire only if their lives were threatened.
“Minister of Defense Binyamin Ben-Eliezer ordered the army to cease fire and to follow regulations for opening fire that are activated solely when lives are endangered,” it said.
Though it wasnt immediately clear what actions Israel was pledging to halt, the statement marked the first tangible move in months toward reducing the level of violence.
Under Mr. Sharon, elected in February, Israel has waged an aggressive campaign against Palestinian guerrilla violence that has included air strikes, targeted killings — which the Palestinians call assassinations — and frequent incursions into Palestinian territory.
Officials in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafats administration, focusing on Mr. Sharons refusal to freeze construction in Jewish settlements of the West Bank and Gaza, rejected the cease-fire offer as a trick and said the Mitchell findings could not be implemented selectively.
“Mr. Sharons remarks represented a rejection to recommendations stated in the Mitchell report,” said Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, a senior aide to Mr. Arafat.
Mr. Mitchells report, issued Monday, calls for an immediate cessation of violence followed by confidence-building measures, including a freeze of all settlement activities.
“Settlement is a time bomb, and as long as settlement exists on occupied Palestinian land, resistance and uprising will go on against settlements and against the occupation,” Mr. Abdel-Rahman told the Reuters news agency.
In Washington, President Bush welcomed Mr. Sharons call for a cease-fire and said through a spokesman that the United States would “welcome a similar statement from the Palestinians.”
The spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said Mr. Bush spoke by telephone to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordans King Abdullah yesterday to deliver the message that “the nations in the region need to be helpful to call for cessation of the violence.”
“The president is very concerned about the level of violence in the Middle East and … all nations in the region, particularly the parties that are involved, have to cease the violence,” Mr. Fleischer said.
Earlier yesterday, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and the U.S. Consul-General in Jerusalem Ronald Schlicher held talks with Mr. Sharon over the Mitchell findings on the settlement issue. The matter is also expected to come up when William Burns, the new special assistant to Mr. Bush, arrives in Israel this week.
Israel has built more than 140 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since capturing them in the 1967 Middle East war. Now, 200,000 Jews live among 3 million Arabs in these areas, where Palestinians hope to build a homeland.
Mr. Sharon told reporters at his news conference that Israel would refrain from confiscating more land to expand Jewish settlements, but he said construction of homes would continue in order to accommodate “natural growth” of the Jewish population.
Some Israeli officials described the pledge not to appropriate land as a concession to the Palestinians, but leftist groups said the formula would still leave ample room for settlements to expand.
According to Peace Now, Israels largest peace group, the government already controls enough land in the West Bank and Gaza to expand the settlements fivefold without having to appropriate more territory from Palestinians.
Peace Now spokesman Didi Remez said thousands of apartments built over the years remain empty and could accommodate the natural population growth of settlers.
“In terms of settlements, governments of the past three decades have tried every trick in the book to fudge this and the result is that we have a demographic and political disaster,” Mr. Remez said.
Palestinians have cited the expansion of settlements during years of peacemaking as one of the sources of frustration that prompted the eruption of violence eight months ago.
Settlers have been targeted frequently by Palestinian gunmen during the fighting, though guerrillas have also struck in the heart of Israel. On Friday, a suicide bomber killed five Israelis in the coastal town of Netanya, prompting strikes by Israeli warplanes that left 12 Palestinians dead.
The Islamic Hamas group, which has carried out most of the suicide bombings, pledged more yesterday. At a news conference in Lebanon, an official from the group said Hamas was planning another 24 suicide attacks against the Jewish state.