By MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH
The Associated Press
RAMALLAH, West Bank - Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat offered a cease-fire to Israel on Wednesday, after Palestinian officials said the militant group Hamas has signaled it might agree to stop attacking Israelis.
Interviewed on Israel TV's Channel 2, Arafat was asked if there was a possibility for a cease-fire. "Of course," he said. "You're invited. The announcement was made yesterday," referring to remarks by his security adviser, Jibril Rajoub.
In an earlier interview on Israel's Channel 10, Arafat said contacts were under way with all Palestinian factions over a cease-fire. "There are continuous contacts with various parties. Yesterday, I had a meeting with all the PLO factions," Arafat said. "Even the Islamic Jihad said they are willing to respect a cease- fire and we are continuing our contacts with Hamas inside and outside."
There was no immediate comment from Israeli leaders, but the government said Tuesday it wanted to see the Palestinian Authority begin disarming Hamas and other militant groups before it would consider a new truce.
Distrust on both sides remains deep after three years of conflict and the failure of a unilateral truce declared by militants in June - which largely held until a Hamas suicide bombing killed 23 people in Jerusalem last month.
Tensions heightened after an open-ended Israeli government decision last week to "remove" Arafat, whom it accuses of fomenting terrorism. The United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution Tuesday that sought to shield Arafat from Israeli action.
Before his TV appearance, Arafat dismissed the veto as insignificant. "No decision here or there will shake us," he told supporters at his West Bank headquarters. "We are bigger than all decisions."
Despite the angry words, there were signs of new efforts to quell violence that has killed 2,468 people on the Palestinian side and 858 on the Israeli side in three years.
Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qureia said once he forms a new government, he will "call on the Israelis to agree to a mutual cease-fire" to clear the way for reopening negotiations and making progress on the stalled "road map" peace plan.
Qureia was tapped by Arafat to replace Mahmoud Abbas, who resigned Sept. 6 after four months of wrangling with Arafat over his authority, with Israel over how to implement the road map, and with Hamas and other militants over stopping attacks on Israelis.
In recent days, Hamas leaders abroad have been in touch by phone with top Palestinian Authority officials to discuss a possible truce. A senior Palestinian said Hamas indicated it would stop attacks in exchange for Israel halting targeted killings of Hamas members and other military strikes.
Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin delivered the message at a recent meeting in Gaza City with Zakaria al-Agha, an envoy sent by Arafat, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Yassin survived an Israeli airstrike earlier this month - one in a series of attacks that have killed 13 Hamas members and six bystanders in the past month. Yassin was unavailable for comment Wednesday.
Israel has said it will press on with its military campaign if the Palestinians don't disarm the militants, as required by the "road map" plan. The Palestinians argue that can be done only by consultation with the militants, rather than confrontation.
"Israel does not accept the idea of a cease-fire as a means or as an alternative to fighting terror," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled said. But he added Israeli considers a truce "an eventual possibility after we have found a Palestinian partner who begins to fight terror."
Hamas has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis over the past three years. But the group's leadership appears to have been rattled by the Israeli airstrikes, as well as by efforts to prevent foreign funds from reaching the group and its related charities.
It is widely believed Israel's government might move against Arafat in response to another major terror attack.
Arafat remained at the center of political contacts in Ramallah to form a new government. Members of his Fatah movement planned to meet Thursday to choose Cabinet ministers, and Palestinian officials have said the establishment of the government would probably take another week.
In other developments Wednesday:
-An armed Palestinian was killed by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Nablus. The army said troops shot the man after they came under fire. Palestinian security sources said the dead man was an activist in the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which is loosely linked to Fatah.
-In the Gaza Strip town of Rafah, the army demolished a derelict structure it said housed the opening of an arms-smuggling tunnel under the nearby border to Egypt.
-An Israeli court in Jerusalem convicted three Jewish settlers of attempting to bomb an Arab girls' school last year to avenge Palestinian attacks on Jews. Israeli police foiled the attempt.