Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israel and the United States Monday brushed aside media reports suggesting that relations between the two countries were strained over Israel's incursion into six Palestinian Authority-controlled cities.
Israeli troops and tanks maintained their positions in the cities on Monday. They moved in last week, following the assassination of Israeli Cabinet Minister Rechavam Ze'evy.
The Hebrew daily Ma'ariv suggested on Monday that the episode had caused a rift in relations between Israel and the U.S., and the topic featured prominently on radio talk shows on Monday.
One diplomatic source said that there was "no crisis" in relations, something that was evident from the statements coming from U.S. officials.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a television interview that he hoped Israel would be able to leave the territories it had occupied soon.
"[Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon] said he did not plan to stay in those areas. And I hope they will finish what they're doing, remove themselves as quickly as they can, so that we can get back to a process that hopefully will lead to a cease-fire," Powell said.
Sharon said that Israel has no intention of staying in the PA areas but it will remain until PA Chairman Yasser Arafat takes action against terrorists.
"As long as terrorism continues without arrests, we will make the arrests," a statement from Sharon's office quoted him as saying. "If there are no counter-terrorist actions, we will act to prevent terrorist actions."
Israel earlier demanded that the PA hand over the assassins of Ze'evy and disband all terrorist organizations.
Paul Patin, U.S. Embassy Spokesman in Tel Aviv, said there was "no crisis" in Israeli-U.S. relations, which were "longstanding, very close relations." The U.S. is concerned, however, about the violence and is talking to Israel about it, he added.
Foreign Ministry spokesman, Noam Katz, said that the U.S. and Israel both want the same thing: for Israel and the PA to return to negotiations. However, that can happen only when the PA will do what it is supposed to do, he sad.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is in the U.S. for talks with officials about Israel's position at this time. Peres said that Ze'evy's murder had "almost destroyed the peace camp."
Katz said that Peres will ask the U.S. to put more pressure on Arafat to take action against terrorists in the territories.
"We want to see action," Katz said. "It's not about attending ceremonies and handshakes, it's about collecting illegal weapons [and] destroying the terrorist infrastructure," he said.
Arafat was well received in Europe last week and won an endorsement for a future Palestinian State from British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He has agreed to a ceasefire but rejected an Israeli demand to arrest a list of wanted terrorists.
According to Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the PA leader told Powell that the U.S. must pressure Israel to withdraw its troops from the territories.
Abu Rudeineh was quoted as saying that this issue would be "a test of the willingness of the US to keep its coalition, or to sacrifice the Arabs and Muslims to satisfy [Israel]."
Washington was keen to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian truce and return the two sides to the negotiating table in order to obtain the backing of Arab and Muslim states for its fight against terror. But until now, all efforts at a ceasefire have failed, culminating last week in Ze'evy's assassination.
PA Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said that although the PA understood how serious it was that a government minister had been killed by Palestinian terrorists, he hinted that the PA would not take real action until Israel withdraws its forces.
"Where the Israeli army is invading Palestinian cities and occupying the hearts of the cities you want the Palestinian Security forces to be involved in other measures and in other tasks?" he said on a television interview.
Nevertheless, overnight the PA was reported to have outlawed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which claimed responsibility for Ze'evy's killing. Earlier it had "outlawed" anyone who broke the ceasefire.
Palestinian newspapers reported on Monday that the PA had arrested four residents of eastern Jerusalem responsible for the murder of Ze'evy.
However, a court order has banned publication of details surrounding the investigation into Ze'evy's murder.
Nevertheless, Israel radio reported that senior Israeli security sources had rejected the reports in the Palestinian newspapers. The sources were quoted as saying that based on Israeli intelligence information the murderers are hiding in Bethlehem.
They also said that Tawfik Tirawi, head of the PA's Intelligence Service in the West Bank had helped the assassins escape from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
More deaths reported
The tough situation on the ground continued Monday. Palestinian sources reported 22 Palestinians have been killed and 250 wounded since last Thursday, many of them apparently civilians caught in the crossfire between Palestinian activists and Israeli troops.
It is not clear how involved the PA forces actually are in the fighting.
Over the weekend, Johnny Thaljieh, 19, was killed by a stray bullet, while he stood in Manger Square in Bethlehem. A young mother named Rania Kharoufeh was also killed in the crossfire in Beit Jala.
In Jerusalem, four Israelis were wounded, two of them seriously, in a shooting attack in a busy shopping and industrial zone, in an attack that may have had mixed motives.
Police spokesman Gil Kleiman confirmed that a Palestinian man from the disputed territories had been invited to meet with a former employer when an argument broke out between them, apparently concerning money. The gunman then ran out onto the street and shot three more passersby before being shot and killed by a soldier, he said.