Thousands of armed Palestinian police took up positions in the northern Gaza Strip yesterday to prevent attacks on Israel, and Islamic militants...

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Thousands of armed Palestinian police took up positions in the northern Gaza Strip yesterday to prevent attacks on Israel, and Islamic militants said they were suspending rocket fire — major steps toward a possible truce after more than four years of bloody Mideast conflict.

“One can’t be negotiating and firing rockets at the same time. It just doesn’t work,” Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri said in announcing that the group was suspending such attacks. Militants have not fired rockets into Israel from Gaza since Wednesday.

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Kassam-rocket and mortar fire from northern Gaza have for months been such a constant that a 24-hour period without any of the projectiles being launched was front-page news in Israel yesterday. “A Day Without Kassams,” read the headline in the mass-circulation daily Yediot Aharonot.

Hamas is pledged to Israel’s destruction and has carried out many suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis. But in the past it has indicated a willingness to consider long-term truces.

In another sign that a cease-fire deal could be imminent, a Palestinian official said after Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas met in Gaza that Egypt probably would soon host a high-level meeting to finalize an agreement between the two Palestinian sides.

The official refused to detail the expected deal, but said on condition of anonymity that talks were moving in a “positive direction.” The Cairo talks, he said, would be held after the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, which ends tomorrow.

Abbas hopes to co-opt the militants into halting violence instead of cracking down on them as Israel demands. A lull in four years of fighting could lead to a renewal of long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Similar negotiations have failed in the past, and Israel is balking at a key demand by the militants: a guarantee to halt military operations, including arrest raids and targeted killings of wanted men. Israel’s deputy defense minister, Zeev Boim, said yesterday that Israel would respond with “great force” to renewed rocket fire.

In his meetings with Hamas and other groups, Abbas also is trying to forge an agreement on a joint political platform that would give him a stronger mandate in future negotiations with Israel over establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

Throughout the day yesterday, Palestinian police took up positions in the northern half of Gaza, security officials said. Over the weekend, police also are scheduled to be deployed in the southern half.

“We are extending maximum effort to carry out our obligation to stop violence against Israelis everywhere,” Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said. “We urge the Israeli side to return to the negotiating table so we can have a declaration of a mutual cessation of violence.”

After the outbreak of fighting in 2000, Palestinian police increasingly stayed off the streets for fear of being targeted by Israeli troops. Israel has said many members of the Palestinian security forces were involved in the fighting, and has repeatedly hit police positions.

In yesterday’s deployment, some officers took up posts they abandoned in the past and began checking vehicles driving close to Israeli army positions. From the town of Beit Lahiya, a frequent rocket-launching area, five dozen members of Palestinian military intelligence, wearing red berets, set out on patrol in new pickup trucks.

“We’ve received orders to deploy all along the northern border areas to take complete control,” said the group’s commander, Ismail Dahdouh.

Israeli officials said it was too soon to pass judgment on the Palestinian effort. Boim, the deputy defense minister, indicated that Israel would not promise now to halt military operations, but the issue could be discussed in future talks between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“I assume that further down the line, there will be a meeting, and we’ll see exactly what Abu Mazen wants,” Boim told Israel Radio, using Abbas’ nickname.

“I wouldn’t say we have the whole thing in our pocket just yet, but Abu Mazen’s first steps are very impressive in tone, rhetoric and action,” Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said.

However, Peres, a proponent of negotiating with the Palestinians, said Israel would step in if Abbas were unable to rein in the militants. “Look, we can’t walk around with a bullet in our barrel, making constant threats,” he said. “If the Palestinians succeed in stopping this, great. If not, we will be forced to do it ourselves.”

The Bush administration said yesterday it was taking advantage of a lull in terror attacks to send the State Department’s ranking Mideast official to the region to assess chances of serious peacemaking.

The announcement of next week’s trip by Assistant Secretary of State William Burns to Israel, Palestinian areas and Egypt was coupled with a positive U.S. response to the Palestinian police taking up positions in northern Gaza.

Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.