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Hamas said to halt attacks inside Israel
( 2003-12-27 10:02) (Agencies)

Hamas, the Islamic group responsible for most suicide bombings during three years of violence, has called off attacks inside Israel, and a full ceasefire could come in a matter of weeks, Israel's military chief said in comments published Friday.

In response, Israel will hold off targeting Hamas leaders but will still go after other Palestinian militants in retaliation for a suicide bombing this week, security sources said.

Since the start of fighting in September 2000, Israel has routinely hunted down and killed militant leaders often in a manner similar to a helicopter airstrike in the Gaza Strip on Thursday.

Three militants and two civilians were killed in the Israeli attack, which came moments before a Palestinian suicide bombing near Tel Aviv that killed four Israelis. The suicide bombing did not appear to be coordinated as retaliation for the airstrike.

Israeli officials and Palestinian militants both pledged retaliation, but Israel said it would not target Hamas leaders, reinforcing the comments by Israel's army chief of staff.

"It is no coincidence that a group like Hamas decides to stop attacks within Israel, it comes from the realization that their organization is in danger," Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper in an interview published Friday.

Yaalon said a truce could be achieved soon and 2004 could be the quietest year since fighting began three years ago.

"It is possible that we will reach a cease-fire in the coming weeks," Yaalon was quoted as saying. "The Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be with us for many years to come, but I believe we have now passed the peak of the violent struggle."

It was not clear when Yaalon made the comments, specifically whether he spoke before Thursday's violence. Hamas officials were not available for comment Friday so it was not clear if the group was sticking to cease-fire efforts.

But Israel appeared to be acting on that assumption. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz decided in a meeting Friday with top commanders that Israel will strike at Palestinian militants, mainly those responsible for the suicide bombing, security officials said. Hamas leaders will not be targeted, they said on condition of anonymity.

Hamas has taken responsibility for most of the more than 100 suicide bombings against Israelis in the fighting. But Thursday's suicide bombing was claimed by two other groups, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Islamic Jihad militants warned at funerals Friday for the Palestinians killed in the airstrike that attacks against Israelis would not abate. An armed and masked member of Islamic Jihad told thousands of participants at one funeral that the group planned more bombings.

"We will chase the Zionist occupiers sitting on each and every inch of usurped Palestine until their final defeat," the militant said.

The new bloodshed came after a relatively calm period and threatened tentative steps to renew peace talks. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia has been pushing the various militant groups to halt attacks on Israel in an effort to get peace talks back on track, but hasn't been able to win such a commitment.

Thursday's suicide bombing was the first successful attack on civilians since an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber blew herself up on Oct. 4 at a restaurant in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, killing 21 people.

The last Israeli air raid until Thursday's, in the Gaza Strip on Oct. 20, killed 14 people, most of them bystanders. Such operations, which often cause civilian casualties, incite angry reactions among Palestinians and often have led to revenge attacks.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been trying to work out a meeting between the prime ministers of the two sides, but the efforts have been bogged down by conditions placed by both.

The sides have also been reluctant to fully implement the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which envisions an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

In the interim, the peace plan requires Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza, and orders the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups steps neither side has taken.

In Nablus, several hundred Israeli soldiers entered the eastern section of the city Friday, ordering residents to stay in their homes, witnesses said. At least 70 residents were detained for questioning, residents said.

The army spokesman said troops were searching for militants, who have attempted 18 attacks from the area against Israel in the past 10 weeks.

Channel Two TV said the large operation in Nablus would last several days.

Also Friday, two demonstrators were wounded, one seriously, when Israeli soldiers shot at a crowd of about 200 Israeli, Palestinian and foreign demonstrators protesting against a barrier Israel is building near the line between the West Bank and Israel.

An Israeli protester was shot in the leg twice and seriously wounded when he climbed the fence and tried to cut through it, protesters and hospital officials said. A Swedish demonstrator was slightly wounded by a rubber bullet.

The army said it had opened fire only after warning shots failed to get them off the structure.

Footage shown on Channel 2 showed soldiers shooting at the crowd even after protesters yelled in Hebrew, "Don't shoot!"

Likud lawmaker Ehud Yatom, a former official in the Shin Bet internal security service, condemned the shooting, saying soldiers are only supposed to open fire when their lives are in danger. The army opened an investigation into the incident.

Israel says the barrier is meant to block suicide bombers, but its route dips deep into the West Bank.

The United States has criticized the barrier, saying it threatens peace negotiations, while the Palestinians say the structure amounts to a seizure of land where they hope to establish their independent state.

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