Hamas orders halt to suicide bomb attacks

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The Independent Online

The militant Hamas has ordered a halt to suicide bombing attacks and mortar barrages at Israel, according to a leaflet circulated by the Islamic group in Gaza.

Hassan Youssef, a senior Hamas official in the West Bank, confirmed that the organization made a decision to stop the suicide bombings, which have killed dozens of Israelis and wounded hundreds during 15 months of Palestinian–Israeli violence.

Youssef told The Associated Press that the decision was made "to preserve Palestinian unity." It came after a day of clashes in Gaza between Palestinian police and Hamas backers, as police tried to arrest a Hamas leader and stop a Hamas cell from firing mortars at Israeli targets.

The leaflet, with an official Hamas seal, was sent to The Associated Press in Gaza. It said the ban on suicide bomb attacks and mortar firing was in effect "until further notice." It said all members of the group, including the military wing, must abide by the decision.

The Hamas move was a victory for Arafat, who announced a ban on attacks against Israel during a speech Sunday, referring to the suicide bombings and other operations against Israel as "terrorist activity" for the first time. Up to now, Hamas leaders had resisted Arafat's call.

There was no immediate word from the second, smaller militant group in Gaza, Islamic Jihad, which has also sent bombers into Israel. Its leaders, based in Damascus and Beirut, rejected Arafat's cease–fire call, labeling it "surrender" to Israel.

In the Jabaliya refugee camp next to Gaza City, Islamic Jihad backers clashed with Palestinian police during the funeral of a 17–year–old who was killed Thursday night in a clash between militants and Palestinian police.

Witnesses said about 300 people demonstrated in front of the Palestinian police post in the sprawling refugee camp. In an exchange of fire, a 12–year–old boy was wounded, they said.

In his speech on Sunday, Arafat charged that Israel had declared war on the Palestinians, and the ban on attacks was meant to deprive Israel of excuses to continue military operations in Palestinian areas.

Arafat was under heavy Israeli and international pressure to crack down on the militant groups after a series of bloody attacks killed more than 30 Israelis this month. U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni left the area last weekend after the attacks and harsh Israeli reprisal strikes. In Washington Thursday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Zinni would return only "when his presence can be effective in moving towards a durable cease–fire."