Shootout between Palestinian police and Hamas supporters

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of Palestinian police surrounded the hideout of a fugitive Hamas leader, but failed to arrest him when his supporters opened fire. Three officers and two bystanders were hurt in the gunfight, a sign of Yasser Arafat's difficulties in cracking down on Islamic militants.

Police said they withdrew because they wanted to avoid casualties among civilians. The wanted man, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a senior figure in Hamas, remained holed up in a house in Gaza City's Sheik Radwan neighborhood, and said he would not surrender.

Rantisi is the highest–ranking Hamas official Palestinian police have tried to arrest since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat ordered a crackdown on militants earlier this month.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops pulled out of two western neighborhoods of the town of Ramallah, Palestinian security officials said. Israeli tanks had entered several districts of Palestinian–controlled Ramallah last week, in response to a Hamas attack on a bus that killed 10 Israelis and wounded 30.

The fighting in Gaza City and the Israeli troop pullback came just hours after Palestinian and Israeli security commanders resumed coordination meetings.

The Palestinian security chief in the West Bank, Jibril Rajoub, said no progress was made in the talks. He said the Palestinians rejected an Israeli proposal, first voiced by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, that the Palestinian Authority carry out its crackdown on militants in stages, with Israel easing restrictions in areas where significant steps against suspects had been taken. Rajoub said "the Israeli policy of aggression should stop immediately in all Palestinian places."

However, the security talks indicated an easing of tension, less than a week after U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni left the area, his truce mission scuttled by bloody Palestinian attacks and large–scale Israeli retaliatory strikes. Since Arafat renewed a truce call over the weekend, there has been a relative lull in violence, and only minor incidents were reported Wednesday.

Since the weekend, Palestinian police have shut down more than two dozen offices linked to Hamas and its smaller sister group, Islamic Jihad.

On Wednesday, the Palestinian Authority announced it detained 15 members of its security service for defying orders to stop attacks on Israelis. The detainees belong to militias affiliated with Arafat's Fatah movement.

Late Wednesday, Palestinian police said they arrested 13 suspected Hamas members and shut down five metal workshops in the Gaza Strip on suspicion they were manufacturing mortar shells. Three owners were arrested, police said.

Hamas and other militant groups have said they would not observe a truce, and a recent opinion poll indicated that only about one–third of Palestinians support a cease–fire.

In the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, about 3,000 people, including many Fatah supporters, marched in support of Arafat on Thursday. About 200 gunmen led the procession, firing in the air and waving Arafat pictures.

Mohammed Kayed, a leader of the local Abu Rish militia linked to Fatah, said he and his men would not permit anyone to defy Arafat. In the past 15 months of fighting, the Abu Rish militia was involved in repeated shooting attacks on Israelis.

The showdown outside Rantisi's hideout began early Thursday.

Several police officers pulled up outside the house, drawing fire from Hamas supporters inside, witnesses said. The officers called in reinforcements, and eventually about 300 policemen were deployed in the area.

Hamas supporters, using loudspeakers of a nearby mosque, asked activists to rally to protect Rantisi, warning falsely that Israeli undercover soldiers were coming to arrest him. About 200 Hamas backers rushed to the scene.

Hamas gunmen opened fire, drawing return fire from the police. Three policemen and two bystanders were hurt, witnesses said. Hamas supporters also threw five hand grenades.

Rantisi has spent time in Palestinian and Israeli jails for his role as a Hamas leader, especially as a spokesman who has frequently spoken out in favor of attacks against Israel.

He said Thursday that he would not surrender. "The place of the freedom fighters is among the Palestinian people, to be defended by the Palestinian people against this Israeli occupation," Rantisi told a reporter by phone from the house.

In Jerusalem, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land sharply criticized Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

"The continuous injustice in this Holy Land, the occupation of the land, the humiliation of the people, their massacre, the siege that is imposed on them, the deprivation of their liberty that God gave them, all this will have an end one day," said Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, a Palestinian, said in his Christmas message.

"We will see then in this land ... the liberty of all his children, Palestinians and Israelis", Sabbah said.