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Hamas to call off attacks, Israel says

By Associated Press
Published December 27, 2003

JERUSALEM - Hamas, the Islamic group responsible for most suicide bombings during three years of violence, has called off attacks in Israel and a full cease-fire could come in a matter of weeks, Israel's military chief said in comments published Friday.

In response, Israel will hold off targeting Hamas leaders but will still go after other Palestinian terrorists in retaliation for a suicide bombing this week, security sources said.

Since the start of fighting in September 2000, Israel has routinely hunted down and killed militant leaders, often in a manner similar to a helicopter airstrike in the Gaza Strip on Thursday.

Three militants and two civilians were killed in the Israeli attack, which came moments before a Palestinian suicide bombing near Tel Aviv that killed four Israelis. The suicide bombing did not appear to be coordinated as retaliation for the airstrike.

Israeli officials and Palestinian militants pledged retaliation, but Israel said it would not target Hamas leaders, reinforcing the comments by Israel's army chief of staff.

"It is no coincidence that a group like Hamas decides to stop attacks within Israel. It comes from the realization that their organization is in danger," Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper in an interview published Friday.

Yaalon said a truce could be achieved soon and 2004 could be the quietest year since fighting began three years ago.

"It is possible that we will reach a cease-fire in the coming weeks," Yaalon was quoted as saying. "The Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be with us for many years to come, but I believe we have now passed the peak of the violent struggle."

It was not clear when Yaalon made the comments, specifically whether he spoke before Thursday's violence. Hamas officials were not available for comment Friday so it was not clear if the group was sticking to cease-fire efforts.

But Israel appeared to be acting on that assumption. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz decided in a meeting Friday with top commanders that Israel will strike at Palestinian terrorists, mainly those responsible for the suicide bombing, security officials said. Hamas leaders will not be targeted, they said.

Hamas has taken responsibility for most of the more than 100 suicide bombings against Israelis in the fighting. But Thursday's suicide bombing was claimed by Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad members warned at funerals Friday for the Palestinians killed in the airstrike that attacks against Israelis would not abate. An armed and masked member told thousands of mourners that the group planned more bombings.

"We will chase the Zionist occupiers sitting on each and every inch of usurped Palestine until their final defeat," the militant said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia has been pushing the various militant groups to halt attacks on Israel in an effort to get peace talks back on track, but hasn't been able to win such a commitment.

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