Militant Palestinians put suicide bombings 'on hold'

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The Independent Online

Hamas, the largest of the militant Islamic Palestinian groups, yesterday abruptly switched tactics and offered to suspend suicide bombings of Israeli civilian targets.

The announcement, by a senior official, was significant because until now the movement has steadfastly insisted that it will continue the war, undeterred by the atrocities in the US, the so-called international "coalition against terror", or the possibility of arrest by Yasser Arafat's security forces.

It was the first public indication from Hamas – which has considerable support at street level in the occupied territories – that it may now line up behind the ceasefire announced on Tuesday by Mr Arafat, who has also signed up for the US-led anti-terror coalition.

Israel swiftly followed the Palestinian leader's truce with a commitment to end offensive military operations in Palestinian controlled areas. Neither side has entirely delivered on their word, but there has been a sharp reduction in overall violence.

A Hamas official told Reuters yesterday that the group were willing to put "suicide bombings", on hold "in the coming period" so long as they were not "provoked" by Israel – for example by Israeli death squad assassinations.

"The Hamas movement and its military wing don't live in a vacuum," said the official. "They take decisions based on the interests of the Palestinian people. Is it in the interest of the people to carry out martyrdom attacks now? Maybe not. So those operations could be frozen. Hamas is willing to take the decision to suspend martyrdom attacks in the coming period unless Israel continues to initiate attacks against Palestinian civilians and pursues its assassination policy." Neither Hamas nor Islamic Jihad – the other main source of suicide bombers – has carried out a suicide bombing since the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

Outwardly, Hamas, which has carried out at least a dozen suicide bombings inside Israel during the past year, has always maintained an utterly uncompromising stance.

Yet internally, there have been signs of policy shifts. Officially, Hamas is committed to the total destruction of Isael. But not unanimously. In April, Jamal Mansour, a Hamas official, told The Independent that the group would consider abiding by a "national" referendum of the Palestinian population on whether still to fight the Jewish state – so long as the latter withdrew to the borders of June 1967, under UN resolution 242. In August, he was assassinated in his office in the West Bank town of Nablus.