Hamas to be exempt from Israeli retaliation strikes

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Israel will target and kill Palestinian militants in retaliation for a suicide bombing that killed four Israelis, senior security sources said yesterday.

The suicide bombing on Thursday came minutes after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza killed three Islamic Jihad militants and two civilians. The attacks ended a relatively calm period in the conflict and threatened tentative steps to renew peace talks.

Shaul Mofaz, the Defence Minister, and his officials decided yesterday to target militants from Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - which admitted responsibility for the bombing, said security sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Since fighting began in September 2000, Israel has routinely hunted down and killed militant leaders, often in a manner similar to Thursday's airstrike, which killed the senior Islamic Jihad leader in the Gaza Strip.

Major-General Moshe Yaalon, Israel's army chief, told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper that Hamas - which is responsible for most suicide bombings and is the prime target of Israeli strikes - had taken a strategic decision to call off attacks inside Israel in response to Israeli attacks on its leaders. "It is no coincidence that a group like Hamas decides to stop attacks within Israel, it comes from the realisation that their organisation is in danger," he said.

Due to Hamas's decision, Israel will not strike the group, the sources said.