Secretary of State Colin Powell has arrived in Jerusalem in an effort to mediate a cease-fire to end more than 18 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Mr. Powell's visit coincides with some of the worst bloodshed in the Middle East in decades.
Mr. Powell will hold consultations with Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni and Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer before meeting Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Secretary Powell has set aside nearly three hours for his talks with the Israeli Prime Minister. He is scheduled to meet later with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Benyamin Ben-Eliezer.
Mr. Powell is expected to meet Saturday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Mr. Sharon says such a meeting would be a "tragic mistake."
Israel invaded Palestinian cities in the West Bank two weeks ago, following a series of Palestinian suicide bombings that killed dozens of Israelis.
Hundreds of Palestinians have died during the offensive.
Mr. Sharon says the offensive will continue, despite pressure from the United States to end the operation.
Israeli government spokesman Daniel Seaman says the Jewish state will continue its mission to capture militants and weapons until it has been successfully completed. "We agree with the United States in principal," he said. "We have said from the beginning we have no intention of remaining in these areas and already from locations that we have concluded military operations we have withdrawn from over the past 48 hours. But there are other places, and we said it quite clearly from the beginning, until the military operation concludes we are staying there."
The Israeli army says it left 24 Palestinian villages overnight, but tanks raided other areas under Palestinian control. Troops continue to occupy major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank.
Palestinian officials say the withdrawals are a publicity stunt designed to mislead world opinion.
The Israeli military says more than 4,000 Palestinians have been arrested since the operation began, including more than 100 on the country's most-wanted list.