GAZA (Reuters) - Israel and the Palestinians pressed ahead on Friday with efforts to arrange truce talks after a surge in violence overshadowed by the terror attacks in the United States.
A meeting between Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was ``likely'' to be held on Sunday, an aide to Arafat said in Gaza.
``The meeting will most likely take place on Sunday in the region. We have informed the Europeans of our willingness to hold the meeting and Sunday looks to be a fair date,'' the adviser, Nabil Abu Rdainah, told Reuters.
He did not say where the talks would take place and did not confirm reports from Israeli diplomatic sources that there was agreement in principle for the leaders to meet at Gaza airport.
Israeli officials were more cautious. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told reporters that there should be a meeting ``only, only if there is a reduction in the level of violence.''
A dispute over the venue prevented a planned series of meetings starting earlier this week on reviving a U.S.-brokered cease-fire that was agreed in June but never took hold.
Even if talks go ahead, neither side is optimistic there will be an agreement to end violence that has raged since a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation erupted nearly a year ago.
Israel sent tanks into the West Bank cities of Jenin and Jericho this week in raids that it said were intended to root out Palestinian militants after a wave of suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis.
About 20 people have been killed in clashes since Sunday, including two suicide bombers. At least 573 Palestinians and 166 Israelis have been killed since last September.
HAMAS CALLS FOR STRIKES ON ISRAEL
More than 2,000 supporters of the militant Hamas group took part in an anti-Israel rally in Nusairat refugee camp in central Gaza on Friday.
Holding aloft pictures of Mohammed Ihbeishi, the first Arab-Israeli suicide bomber, they called on Arafat to spurn talks with Israel and warned of further attacks.
Ihbeishi killed three Israelis and himself in an attack on a train station in northern Israel on Sunday.
``Israel must await the arrival of our explosive bodies. They must await more strikes that will achieve victory for us...Our enemy knows only the language of force and negotiations are useless,'' a senior Hamas activist told the crowd.
A Gaza cleric, Abu Abdullah, told thousands of Muslim worshippers attending prayers that the United States was responsible for causing the ``severe frustration'' that led attackers to strike in New York and Washington.
``America supports the injustice and spreads it among the weak people that leads to such malice,'' he said.
But the cleric cited verses in the Koran that forbid the killing of innocent people.
Hundreds of Palestinians also rallied in the West Bank city of Ramallah to show support for Americans killed in the attacks, and condemn Israeli killing of Palestinians in Jenin.
CELEBRATION AND CONDEMNATION
Earlier this week, hundreds of Palestinians celebrated in the streets of the West Bank city of Nablus after the terror attacks leveled the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and struck the Pentagon in Washington, leaving thousands feared dead.
There were no reports of major clashes overnight. But the Israeli army said Palestinians fired at several army posts in the Gaza Strip and launched mortar bombs at the Gush Katif bloc of Jewish settlements. No injuries were reported.
A spokesman for Palestinian public security forces said Israeli tanks fired two shells at a Palestinian police post south of Gaza City, and troops opened fire at the same position from heavy machineguns mounted on the tanks. No one was hurt.
The Palestinians have accused Israel of launching a new military offensive while world attention is riveted on events in the United States.
Blaming the violence on Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon compared his old foe to Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the strikes on the United States.
``He (Arafat) is like bin Laden, bin Laden also has a coalition of terror...But the difference is that Arafat still has a choice, he can still make a switch,'' government spokesman Raanan Gissin quoted Sharon as telling Secretary of State Colin Powell by telephone on Wednesday.
The Palestinians dismiss such charges. Arafat has condemned the U.S. attacks, urged Arab states to join an international coalition against terror and donated blood for the victims.