June 6, 2003 at 4:15 PM CDT - Updated June 21 at 10:33 PM
by Ibrahim Hazboun Associated Press Writer
A senior Hamas official said Friday the militant group was breaking off cease-fire talks with the Palestinians, a surprise reversal that threw into doubt a key component of a Mideast peace plan.
The official, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, spoke just hours after Israeli troops killed two Hamas activists in an arrest raid in the West Bank.
A Hamas refusal to negotiate could force Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to make a difficult choice: either crack down on the group and risk a civil war, or allow it to continue bombing and shooting attacks that would derail Washington's peace efforts.
However, a Palestinian Cabinet minister said talks with Hamas leaders abroad continued, suggesting there was still a chance to reach an agreement to end Hamas violence - including suicide attacks against Israelis. Others said Hamas, known for its pragmatism, would not risk a confrontation with security forces and would quickly resume talks.
As part of the U.S.-backed "road map" to Palestinian statehood, the Palestinians must disarm and dismantle militant groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis in shootings and bombings in 32 months of fighting.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has been trying to negotiate with the militias rather than use force, saying he wants to avoid civil war. It was not clear whether a Hamas refusal to negotiate a truce would set the stage for a crackdown by Palestinian security forces.
Rantisi, a Hamas leader and hard-liner, told reporters Friday that efforts to reach a truce were off. He said Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, made too many concessions at a summit Wednesday in Jordan. At the meeting with President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Abbas called for an end to the "armed intefadeh."
"We were shocked when we saw Abu Mazen and his new government giving up all the Palestinians' rights," he said. "Abu Mazen committed himself in front of Bush and Sharon to very dangerous issues that closed the door of dialogue between us."
Other Hamas officials said they would meet Saturday with Islamic Jihad, a smaller militant group, to persuade it to break off truce talks as well. Hamas, founded in 1987, is vehemently oppose to peace with Israel.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Ziad Abu Amr, Abbas' liaison to Hamas, said he has not received official word from Hamas that talks were finished, but said the killing of the two Hamas activists by Israeli troops was hampering the effort.
"Israel's continuation of the policy of assassinations and incursion is an obstacle in the way of efforts of dialogue with the Palestinian parties and the possibility of reaching a cease-fire with them," Abu Amr said.
The Hamas activists were killed just before midnight Thursday in the village of Attil, after troops surrounded a house and ordered those inside to surrender, the army said. When the men, who were hiding in a room, refused to come out, troops entered the house and fought with them. Two of the militants were killed and a third was wounded and arrested, the army said.
Rantisi said the killings were a direct result of Abbas' concessions.
"Abu Mazen, through giving up the right of resistance and calling it terrorism, gave the green light to Sharon and his army," he said.
Abu Amr said the Palestinian leadership remains committed to dialogue with Hamas and that contacts between the Palestinian leadership and Hamas leaders abroad are proceeding.
Meanwhile, other efforts to clear the streets of gunmen continued. Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian security chief, has offered to buy illegal weapons carried by members of a militia linked to Abbas' own Fatah movement, according to several Palestinian officials and militia members, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Dahlan has received money from the United States and Europe for buying the weapons, the officials said.
U.S. officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Britain's Foreign Office said Friday the government had not provided any money for the buying of weapons, but was prepared to help in any initiative that could improve the prospects for peace in the region.
"We are aware that the Palestinian Authority are working on ideas for weapons collection and we would be prepared to help in any way we can with initiatives that will help to take the implementation of the road map forward," said a spokeswoman on condition of anonymity.
There were conflicting reports on the amount of money promised. A leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militia linked to Fatah, said Dahlan is offering $6,000 for each rifle, while officials gave lower figures. Dahlan also offered a signup bonus of at least $6,000 to Al Aqsa members who leave the militia and join the security forces, militiamen said.
Al Aqsa did not say whether any members had accepted the offer.
However, in a leaflet, Al Aqsa said it would only disarm if Israel stopped killing and arresting its leaders and released prisoners. The group also demanded Israel lift a travel ban on Yasser Arafat, in effect for more than a year, that confines the Palestinian leader to the West Bank.
Palestinians in Gaza held three pro-Hamas rallies Friday. About 1,000 people marched at each, some carrying green Hamas flags and chanting, "No to the summit, we will not accept surrender."
Elsewhere in Gaza, along the sandy southern border with Egypt, Israeli forces uncovered two tunnels used by weapons smugglers and fought gunmen who unleashed what the army described as a massive amount of gunfire.
The Palestinians fired seven anti-tank grenades and lobbed more than 100 hand grenades. There were no serious injuries reported on either side.
The army also reported that four mortars were fired at an Israeli settlement and an army post in Gaza, causing no injuries or damage.