Israel spurns Hamas offer to halt bombing



Israel yesterday rejected an offer by the Hamas Islamic militant organisation to call off its suicide bombing campaign in return for the release of its prisoners and immunity from revenge.

Ehud Barak, the Foreign Minister, said that Israel could not undercut Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which "must do the job". Hamas and Izzedine al-Qassim, its military wing, had issued a joint statement saying there would be no more attacks for a week while its offer is being considered.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman had given his own deadline for all unregistered weapons in the areas he controls to be handed over by last night. Otherwise his security forces would start searches for arms, threatening people who hold unregistered weapons with 15 years in prison.

"In general, Israel does not negotiate with the terror cells of Hamas," Mr Barak said. Earlier in the week Israel was reported to have said to Mr Arafat that if he would not deal with Hamas, it might open talks with the organisation.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, has also said that if Mr Arafat does not rein in extremists, Israel may delay the troop withdrawal in the West Bank town of Hebron due at the end of this month.

Mr Peres has warned that the Israeli closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, barring 60,000 Palestinian workers from reaching their jobs inside Israel, will stay in effect until the security situation improves.

The border closures, thought to be costing the Palestinian economy $4m (pounds 2.6m) a day in lost wages and exports, have caused a backlash against Hamas among Palestinians who have blamed the group for their financial hardships.

Israeli security services say that the orders to launch the suicide bomb attacks last Sunday, which killed 23 Israelis, were given by the Hamas leadership in Damascus. Izzedine al-Qassim in Gaza says it was not involved, which, if true, means that Hamas is split. This is precisely what Mr Arafat has been trying to achieve in the past, but the fragmentation of the organisation makes it more difficult to control.

Labour party strategists have little doubt that more suicide bombs will mean that it will certainly lose the election to be held on 29 May. The bombs have strengthened the opposition Likud bloc by persuading David Levy, the former foreign minister, to lead his small breakaway party, Gesher, back into the fold in return for seven guaranteed seats in the Knesset (parliament).

Mr Levy has reportedly been offered the post of foreign minister in a future Likud government.

In the latest poll carried out by the daily Ma'ariv, 7 per cent of voters said they had switched from Labour to Likud because of the bomb attacks. Mr Peres led Binyamin Netanyahu, the opposition leader, by 46 per cent to 44 per cent. Two-thirds of voters thought the Israeli army should operate against organisations like Hamas in territory controlled by Mr Arafat.

A similar proportion said they still supported the peace process with the Palestinians.