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Palestinian militant groups step up threat to call off ceasefire

2005-06-13 09:22:00

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Palestinian militant groups step up threat to call off ceasefire
12:12 PM EDT Jun 13

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) - After a four-month lull in fighting, Palestinian militant groups on Monday stepped up a threat to withdraw from a ceasefire with Israel but stopped short of pulling out of the deal.

The militant factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, accused Israel of violating the truce with continued military operations.

"A one-sided truce will not be accepted and cannot continue," said a statement issued by 13 Palestinian factions. "We hold the Zionist enemy completely responsible for the deterioration of the truce."

Leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have carried out dozens of suicide bombings in recent years, had issued a similar warning on Sunday.

In their statement Monday, the groups said they would continue to consult with one another to determine an "appropriate response to the ongoing aggression."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas declared the ceasefire at a February summit in Egypt, hoping to end more than four years of fighting. The following month, the Islamic militants agreed to honour the deal. A collapse in the truce would be a major setback for Abbas's efforts to restart peace talks.

The ceasefire has brought a sharp drop in violence, although sporadic fighting has persisted. Abbas met with militants in Gaza last week in an effort to shore up the truce following a new flare-up that included an Israeli raid that killed two Islamic Jihad militants and a Palestinian mortar barrage that killed three people.

In new violence Monday, Palestinians fired a rocket into a Jewish settlement in the northern Gaza Strip, the army said. Militants also fired mortar shells and shot at Israeli soldiers in northern Gaza over the weekend. No injuries were reported.

With tensions rising, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is expected in the region this week for talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials in a bid to bolster the ceasefire and to discuss Israel's coming withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Egypt is often a mediator between the two sides.

The visit is part of a flurry of diplomacy leading up to a June 21 meeting between Sharon and Abbas, their first gathering since the February summit. Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are also scheduled to visit in the coming week.

In last week's talks in Gaza, Abbas agreed to give the militants a role in preparations for Israel's Gaza withdrawal, scheduled for August. The Palestinian Authority also released two Islamic Jihad prisoners it had been holding for involvement in a Feb. 25 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv after they were acquitted by a Palestinian court.

Representatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad agreed to honour the ceasefire, but warned they will strike at Israel if they feel they are attacked. They repeated the warning over the weekend.

The Israeli army has greatly reduced its activities but continues to arrest or attack militants it believes are actively involved in violence against Israelis.

Israel has said it is willing to work with Abbas to plan for its Gaza withdrawal. But it says it won't resume peace talks until Abbas reins in militants. Abbas refuses to confront the militant groups, preferring to negotiate with them.

A resumption of violence would also hinder Abbas's efforts to crack down on a growing wave of lawlessness in the Palestinian areas.

The Palestinian Authority on Sunday carried out its first executions since 2002, killing four convicted murderers in a campaign meant to stop the chaos. The late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, had halted the practice three years ago amid international criticism.

Abbas has made public order a top priority, but his forces have been weakened by internal rivalries, a lack of resources and years of fighting with Israel. Despite Abbas's efforts to revamp his security forces, armed gangs continue to operate with virtual impunity in Palestinian areas.

Sunday's executions appeared to be an attempt to deter criminals and send a message to the public without directly confronting the militants. None of the executed men was believed to be affiliated with any of the major militant groups. Their crimes dated to the mid-1990s.

Including Sunday's killings, the Palestinian Authority has executed 13 people.

Some 47 Palestinians remain on death row, about half of them convicted collaborators with Israel. Palestinian officials said last month they had suspended plans to execute the collaborators, fearing their deaths would inflame tensions with Israel.

© The Canadian Press, 2005


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