Israeli and Palestinian security officials met last night to discuss ways of establishing a cease-fire following a week of intense violence that left at least 50 dead on both sides.

Also this weekend, Palestinian security officials met in Ramallah in a forum described as the National Security Council, presided over by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

The meeting between Major General Amos Gilad, in charge or coordinating operations in the territories, and Palestinian Security Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahlan has the strong backing of the U.S. and Egypt.

Part of the joint effort includes a plan to transfer Israeli security control of the northern Gaza Strip to the Palestinians for an initial period of 10 days. During this time, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian opposition, comprising Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other organizations, are expected to formulate a cease-fire agreement and put an end to terrorist attacks against Israel. In return, Israel will halt, at least temporarily, the targeting of the Hamas leadership.

The meeting comes after the Palestinian National Security Council announced its willingness late Friday night to accept security responsibility in all Palestinian areas from which Israel withdraws its troops.

"We have taken a decision that, if Israel shows readiness to withdraw from any Palestinian territory, we will take security responsibility in this area," PA Information Minister Nabil Amr said after the meeting convened by Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

This is the first time the Palestinians have made such a declaration since the start of the road map process. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has previously rejected similar offers by Israel, saying he wished to first secure a cease-fire with militant groups.

An aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Ra'anan Gissin, said on the weekend that Israel has "submitted a plan... relinquishing security control over parts of Gaza and handing it over to full control of the Palestinian Authority and Dahlan's security forces."

Meanwhile, the Palestinians have appealed to the United States to curb Israel's military activities in the territories, arguing it makes it impossible to implement measures demanded of it by the road map.

"The Palestinian Authority cannot meet its responsibilities without a U.S. guarantee that Israel will stop its military escalation," cabinet minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said after Friday's meeting.

For their part, Israeli security officials are of the opinion that the Palestinians understand that they are expected to act immediately, as a result of a wave of assassinations of Hamas officials by the Israeli security forces.

"The era of signals is over," a senior IDF officer told Haaretz last night. The officer hinted that Israel will not hesitate to renew the assassination policy, backed with deep penetration raids into the Palestinian-held areas of the Gaza strip, if the Palestinian Authority avoids taking on to itself its responsibility in the "pilot" program - assuming security control of the northern Gaza Strip.

According to the plan presented to the Americans and the Palestinians 10 weeks ago, the Palestinian security forces are supposed to take over the area of Beit Hanun and Beit Lahia, where IDF troops are currently deployed, and prevent the firing of Qassam rockets against Israeli towns across the border. If the experiment is successful, the IDF will pull out of other areas it has occupied since the start of the intifada.

At this time, Israel has avoided commiting to a complete end to the assassinations campaign directed against the Hamas leadership, but has hinted that only "ticking bombs" will be dealt with swiftly, unless the Palestinian Authority handles the problem first.

At the General Staff in Tel Aviv, the assessment yesterday is that this time the two sides will make quick progress in the talks. According to IDF officers, senior Palestinian Authority officials understand that they are running out of time and they are expected to agree to taking security responsibility over the northern Gaza Strip, in the coming week.

"After the meeting, we will know very quickly which direction things are moving this time," one of the sources said.