Hamas announces halt to suicide attacks
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- For the first time in 15 months of fighting, the Islamic militant group Hamas announced Friday that it is suspending suicide bombings and mortar attacks in Israel, improving chances for a U.S.-led truce to take hold.
Despite that promise, tensions between militants and Palestinian police trying to enforce a cease-fire continued to run high. Six Palestinians were killed and dozens wounded Friday in a gun battle in a Gaza refugee camp.
Israel dismissed the Hamas announcement as a tactical move aimed at easing international pressure on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to crack down on Islamic militants.
"Hamas is doing what Arafat wants from them. He wants several days of quiet so that public opinion will be on his and the Palestinian Authority's side," said Gideon Meir, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official.
Despite the Hamas moratorium, the potential for violence remained high. The smaller Islamic Jihad group announced from Lebanon that it was not suspending attacks, and the Hamas decision does not apply to the West Bank and Gaza Strip where some 200,000 Jewish settlers live.
Aides to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Friday that Israel would continue to retaliate harshly for attacks.
Islamic militants have killed scores of Israelis since September 2000, including 37 this month alone. In all, more than 840 people have died on the Palestinian side and more than 240 on the Israeli side.
Last weekend, Arafat renewed his call for a truce with Israel, demanding a halt to suicide and mortar attacks. Hamas initially resisted, and a senior Palestinian official said Friday's announcement was a result of protracted negotiations between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
Arafat's crackdown on militants -- his security forces have arrested dozens of suspects and shut down some Hamas offices and mortar factories -- has been accompanied by bloody confrontations. Since Thursday, seven Palestinians have been killed and at least 94 hurt in gun battles between militants and Palestinian police.
The Hamas announcement, faxed to news agencies, said attacks were being suspended "until further notice." A Hamas leader in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, said Friday that the Palestinians retained the right "to respond to Israeli crimes."