Israel suspends offensive

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israel suspended an offensive against fighters in the Gaza Strip, including targeted killings, as clashes between Hamas gunmen and Palestinian police trying to enforce an arms ban killed at least three in Gaza City.

Medical sources said three Palestinians, including a police major, had been killed and 50 wounded after Hamas men fired rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons at a police station in the Shati refugee camp.

Fighting also erupted at the nearby Shifa Hospital after two Palestinians wounded in the earlier firefight were brought there for treatment.

A security source said the clashes began when Mohammed Rantissi, the son of a Hamas leader assassinated last year in an Israeli air strike, got into a dispute with another Palestinian who wanted to use a bank ATM machine ahead of him.

The fight escalated when police attempted to arrest Rantissi as part of ban on carrying weapons in public in the strife-torn Gaza Strip which Palestinian security forces recently began enforcing.

“Hamas bears entire responsibility for what happened. It violated the law and the national consensus,” said an interior ministry statement.

Armed factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad have refused demands by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to lay down their weapons since Israel’s pullout from Gaza last month, but have agreed that their activists should not carry their weapons in public.

Abbas has repeatedly pledged to tackle the spiralling lawlessness in the Palestinian territories, particularly in Gaza, where gunmen frequently operate beyond the law in the name of “resistance.”

The fighting came after Israel ended a campaign of attacks that has killed four Islamists, with an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saying the raids had taught the Palestinians the “new rules of the game.” “We have decided to suspend the offensive operations that we launched last week in response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel,” the official in Sharon’s office told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Israel launched a series of air strikes on Gaza last weekend in the aftermath of a barrage of rocket attacks by Hamas fired from Gaza into Israel, but the group dismissed the announcement as a ploy to split the Palestinian people.

“This statement is part of the propaganda campaign to blackmail our people and to put pressure on the Palestinian Authority to fight against the factions and resistance groups,” said spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.

But chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said “a cooldown between the Palestinians and Israelis is in the interests of both sides,” as he revealed Abbas and Sharon had agreed in a phone call to try and meet later this month.

The pair had been initially due to meet on Sunday but the flare-up in Gaza had led to the summit being shelved.

“They talked about meeting, in principle this month, but there is no date,” Erakat told AFP.

Sharon’s office confirmed that the leaders had agreed to meet soon as they exchanged greetings for the Jewish new year and Ramadan.

Abbas is also set to hold a summit with US President George W. Bush at the White House on October 20 where he is set to be pressed to rein in factions.

Bush believes the pullout from Gaza can revive the ailing peace process but knows such hopes will be stillborn if violence continues to blight the region.

The US State Department last week urged Israel at the height of its air strike campaign “to take into account the effect of their actions” upon peace.

Israeli officials believe Abbas will come under pressure during his trip to Washington to institute a proper crackdown on Hamas which is planning to run in January’s legislative elections.

Abbas has previously indicated that he wants to co-opt Hamas into the political process and warned that a formal crackdown could spark a civil war.

Sharon was quoted as telling the weekly Cabinet meeting that he had stressed to fellow world leaders at the recent UN General Assembly in New York that “the participation of Hamas in elections is dangerous and bad.

“Hamas will be able to participate only if they renounce their arms and their covenant that calls for destruction of the state of Israel,” he said.

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