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Hamas suspends suicide attacks in Israel

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Palestinian riot police run toward Hamas supporters Thursday during clashes near a house where a Hamas leader was holed up in Gaza City.  


JABALIYA, Gaza (CNN) -- Palestinian militant group Hamas announced it would end suicide attacks inside Israel but other groups opposed to Israel rejected a call for an end to attacks on Israel.

Hamas announced Friday it will suspend suicide attacks "inside the land occupied in 1948" by Israel and promised a "halt to firing mortars until further notice."

The statement, issued in Gaza, came after days of debate inside Hamas about how to respond to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's call for a cease-fire, and follows weeks of international pressure for the Palestinian Authority to quell the violence.

Hamas did not name the West Bank and Gaza in the announcement of its decision to stop its military wing from conducting suicide bombings.

Responding to the announcement, the Israeli government rejected what it said were "mixed messages" from the Palestinians and said Hamas still poses a serious threat.

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Palestinian leadership cracked down on terrorist groups, while Israeli troops moved into Palestinian-controlled areas. CNN's Rula Amin reports (December 21)

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Representatives of 18 Arab countries declared Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a non-partner in the peace process. CNN's James Martone reports (December 21)

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The White House responded to the Hamas announcement by saying it would continue to hold Arafat responsible for maintaining peace in the region.

"President (Bush) believes all terrorist activities everywhere must cease and he believes that Chairman Arafat is the one who can make that happen and needs to take the action to stop terrorism," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "Hamas is a terrorist organization and it's Chairman Arafat's responsibility as a leader in the region to stop the terrorism so that peace can take hold."

Following weeks of international pressure on the Palestinian Authority to quell the violence, Arafat called for a cease-fire December 16. In an earlier statement, he promised to find and arrest those responsible for planning attacks on Israel. After days of debate inside Hamas about how to respond to Arafat's cease-fire call, Hamas announced Friday it would "halt to the martyrdom (suicide) operations inside the land occupied in 1948 (Israel) and a halt to firing mortars until further notice."

The statement cited only general reasons for halting attacks, saying the decision was taken in the interest of the Palestinian people and of trying to preserve Palestinian unity.

The words "until further notice" left room for Hamas to change its mind and the statement did not indicate a halt to suicide bombings in West Bank and Gaza.

After the Hamas announcement, the radical Islamic Jihad called on Palestinian police to ignore the Palestinian Authority, accusing it and Arafat, its leader, of selling Palestinians' security to buy the security of the enemy. A high-ranking Islamic Jihad official told CNN the group would not suspend "any resistance activities."

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also rejected Arafat's recent call for a cease-fire.

Hamas is an Islamic fundamentalist group whose military wing has claimed responsibility for several suicide bombings in a spate of attacks against Israelis that started in early December. Those terror attacks, which killed 35 Israelis, prompted the Israeli Cabinet to label the Palestinian Authority a "terrorist supporting entity," end relations with Arafat and to sanction a string of retaliatory strikes on the West Bank and Gaza.

In response to international pressure to quell the violence, the Palestinian Authority has been arresting Hamas members and closing down buildings owned by Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- a group dedicated to the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel.

Some Palestinians had urged Hamas to abide by Arafat's call for a cease-fire in order to avoid a heavy crackdown by the Palestinian Authority, while others called for an escalation of violence to defy the international pressure to stop attacks on Israelis.

The Hamas statement cited only general reasons for halting attacks, saying the decision was taken in the interest of the Palestinian people and of trying to preserve Palestinian unity.

The Palestinian Authority said the Hamas announcement was a "very positive step" and urged continued peace efforts.

Israeli officials responded with skepticism, and believed the statement did not represent a blanket halt to suicide attacks.

"What is perhaps most disturbing about this announcement is that it says that terrorism is legitimate in certain areas and terrorism will be stopped in other areas," said Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "We will not accept, we will not greet any kind of announcement which says killing Israelis here is OK but killing them there is not OK."

Another Sharon adviser, Ra'anan Gissin, said Israel would base its response on actions, not words.

"As long as Hamas conducts terror activities against innocent civilians and as long as terrorism from the Palestinian Authority is conducted, we will continue in our relentless fight against terrorism," Gissin said.

Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the Palestinian Authority hopes Israel will stop "assassinations" of militants and withdraw from Palestinian territory, as well as ease the closure of Palestinian towns.

Erakat also said the United States should create a timeline for the Mitchell peace accords, which called for a cessation of violence and a series of confidence-building measures leading to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The United States, Europe and Israel have been urging Arafat for weeks to pursue a sustained effort to end the region's violence.

Hamas' announcement Friday was expected to help ease tension in Gaza, particularly in towns such as Khan Younis and Rafah, where anger over the crackdown has run especially high.

Clashes Friday between Palestinian police and protesters in Jabaliya, a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Gaza, left six people dead and an estimated 72 others wounded -- 10 of them critically, Gaza hospital sources said.

In another development, Israel Radio reported that Israel would not allow Arafat to travel to Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations with Christian clergy.

According to the report, Israeli authorities said Arafat will be confined to Ramallah unless the Palestinian Authority arrests the assassins of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi and the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Ahmed Sa'adat.

According to Israel Radio, Sa'adat and those responsible for Ze'evi's assassination at an East Jerusalem hotel in October are in the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority knows where they are.

The Palestinian Authority has not requested permission for Arafat to travel, but earlier in the week Arafat told Christian clerics he intended to be in Bethlehem for the Christmas celebrations even if he had to walk.

The decision was also announced hours after Palestinian police attempted to arrest Hamas leaders and militants in several Gaza neighborhoods.

In Gaza City, Hamas members and residents clashed with police outside the home of Abdel Rantisi, a founding member of Hamas, triggering a gunbattle in which one Palestinian was killed and 23 others were wounded -- five of them seriously, hospital sources said.

Palestinian sources told CNN on Friday that Rantisi planned to turn himself in within 24 hours, thereby avoiding further clashes. But the apparent agreement could not be confirmed.

The Palestinian Authority has been arresting Hamas militants and closing down dozens of buildings owned by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.



 
 
 
 


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