Hamas 'will not be bound' by Middle East ceasefire

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The Independent Online

The Hamas militant Islamic group is not bound by the cease–fire called by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, its spiritual leader said today as the fragile truce held.

Hamas support for the cease–fire called last Saturday is seen as vital to its success – the bomber who blew himself up outside a Tel Aviv disco on Friday night, killing 20 other young people, was a Hamas member.

"When we are talking about the so called cease–fire, this means between two armies. We are not an army. We are people who defend themselves and work against the aggression," the group told the AP.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said a reduction of Palestinian violence in recent days shows a convincing cease–fire had begun. "You can congratulate us on the beginning, but not on the completion," Mr Peres said.

Israel has demanded eight weeks of quiet before peace negotiations can be resumed while the Palestinians want only four weeks, he told Army radio.

Despite international efforts to calm tempers, several Palestinians were injured today in exchanges of fire in Hebron and Ramallah in the West Bank, Palestinian witnesses said.

Also in the West Bank, Ashraf Mahmoud Bardawil, 27, a Fatah activist in the Tulkarem area, was critically injured in an explosion in his car, according to a local hospital director and Bardawil's family. The cause wasn't clear.

Mr Arafat called a meeting of his Fatah leadership and Hamas representatives last night. A joint statement said they would halt attacks in Israel as of midnight (2100 GMT) to give Israel a chance to "stop assassination and stop killing and destruction."

"We are going to stop our military actions in our lands," read the leaflet released in the names of the military wings of Hamas and Fatah.

Such a joint statement is unusual and a Hamas leader in Ramallah, Hassan Yousef, said he was not sure it was authentic. The secretive military wing could not be contacted to verify it but issued no leaflets denying it.

Another militant group, Islamic Jihad, did not take part in Monday night's meeting, and the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, formally part of the PLO but opposed to peace with Israel, issued conflicting statements.

Nafez Azam, spokesman of the Islamic Jihad, suggested the group would give a cease–fire a chance.

"We are respecting all the decisions taken by any Palestinian movement," Azam said. "Our position is to protect the unity of the Palestinian people."

North of Ramallah, Israeli soldiers opened fire Tuesday with rubber–coated steel bullets on Palestinians throwing stones after the army refused to let them by a checkpoint, Palestinian witnesses said. Ten Palestinians were injured. The army said it fired on 600 demonstrators to disperse them.

In Hebron, an exchange of fire erupted between security forces of the two sides and one Palestinian officer was injured in the leg. The Israeli army said soldiers shot after they were fired on.

In the West Bank, Palestinian gunmen fired at Israeli cars at two points early Tuesday but no injuries were reported.

Three Palestinians, including a 7–year–old boy, also were injured in an explosion while playing near the Egyptian–Gaza border, according to doctors and security sources. The boy had chest injuries; the two others, ages 16 and 17, were reported in stable condition. Palestinians claim Israeli soldiers have booby–trapped the area.

Despite the relative reduction of violence in the eight months of fighting, Palestinian leaders insisted a cease–fire would not end their struggle against Israel.

West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who attended the meeting with Arafat, said the cease–fire applies only to areas under full Palestinian control. In other areas, he said, "resisting occupation is a legitimate right of the Palestinians."

West Bank Palestinian security chief Jibril Rajoub pledged a "100 percent effort" to enforce the cease–fire, but warned only a political solution would end the conflict.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a telephone call late Monday to arrest those responsible for the Tel Aviv nightclub bombing. Powell leaned on Arafat to go beyond his offer of a cease–fire and his order that attacks on Israel be halted, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who extended a stay in the region to continue intensive talks, told Israel television that U.S.–led, international monitoring would be necessary for any Israel–Palestinian accord.