Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has indicated he may drop his insistence for a week of calm before beginning truce talks with the Palestinians. The prime minister's remarks came after at least 38 Palestinians were killed in a major escalation of violence in the Middle East.
Prime Minister Sharon told Israeli television "the negotiations for a cease-fire will take place under fire," apparently indicating he is backing down from his demand that seven-days of total calm are required before any talks with the Palestinians can be held.
Sources indicated Mr. Sharon informed U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell of his decision during a phone call earlier in the day.
The apparent change in policy came as U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni was scheduled to travel to the region next week in another attempt to broker a cease-fire.
The retired Marine Corps General has made two previous trips to the area, but has failed in his efforts to convince both sides to stop the bloodshed.
The prime minister's remarks followed a massive Israeli military invasion into Palestinian-ruled areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as violence reached unprecedented levels.
Israeli forces pounded Palestinian targets following the killing of five Israeli teenagers by a Palestinian gunman who infiltrated a Jewish settlement in Gaza.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called for immediate U.S. intervention to stop what he called "the massacres" taking place in the Palestinian territories.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says Prime Minister Sharon is determined to crush the current uprising without regard to how many people are killed.
"What we are witnessing out there are killing fields," he said. "It is a total escalation and is a war without any limitations as far as Sharon is concerned. He said that publicly. He said he will inflict the highest number of deaths on the Palestinians. This is his policy."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Ayre Mekel says he hopes Mr. Zinni's efforts to mediate a cease-fire next week are successful.
"We welcome the visit of General Zinni," he said. "General Zinni is a friend and we are very hopeful that he can finally persuade the Palestinians to put an end to this wave of terror that they have initiated 18-months ago with the leadership of Chairman Arafat. We hope that Mr. Zinni will be able to put an end to it."
This past week has been the bloodiest since the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation erupted in September 2000.
More than 100 Palestinians and at least 35 Israelis have been killed so far.