GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip, AP -Hamas, the largest Palestinian militant group, said Wednesday it would not return to all-out war against Israel, even after Israeli missiles killed one of its top gunmen.
But with an informal, 9-month-old truce approaching its Dec. 31 expiry, the group”s spokesman Mushir Al-Masri said its renewal was not assured if Israeli attacks would persist. "In the face of this Zionist aggression, no one should dream about the renewal of this truce," he said.
Israel, meanwhile, ratcheted up its demands for a crackdown on militants, saying Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas must arrest gunmen, not only disarm them.
In the West Bank, an Israeli soldier was killed during a roundup of militants near Jenin, the army spokesman said. A suspected militant had surrendered to troops when shots were fired from a field, hitting one of the soldiers in the head and killing him, the army said.
More than a week of violence, including Israeli assassinations of militants and a Palestinian suicide bombing, has hurt hopes for a return to peacemaking following Israel”s withdrawal from Gaza in September.
In an airstrike Tuesday, missiles slammed into a car carrying Hassan Madhoun, a leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a violent offshoot of Abbas” Fatah party, who was involved in a bombing at the Israeli port of Ashdod.
Israel had been pressuring Abbas to arrest Madhoun since the beginning of the year, providing the gunman”s address and cellular phone number. At Sharon”s urging, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also brought up Madhoun with Abbas, Israeli officials have said.
The other man killed in the airstrike Fawzi Abu Kara, a Hamas rocket expert who the military said was not a target.
Hamas vowed revenge for Abu Kara”s killing, but said it would not turn its back on the informal truce militant factions agreed to in February.
"Our people have the right to respond to the Israeli crimes committed against our civilians and our holy warriors," said Sami Abu Zuhri, another Hamas spokesman. "Our commitment to the calm does not mean that we don”t have the right to retaliate."
Militant factions interpret the cease-fire to mean they can respond to individual Israeli attacks while remaining committed to the truce, a position Abbas has dismissed as unacceptable. Since the truce, Hamas and Al Aqsa have refrained from carrying out attacks in Israel, while Islamic Jihad has been responsible for four suicide bombings.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Wednesday that operations against militants would stop once Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, decides to disarm them.
"If Abu Mazen would make the strategic decision that he has refused to make, to dismantle terror organizations and prevent them from carrying out activity from the Gaza Strip, believe me, on that same day all the operations in Gaza will stop," Shalom said.
Abbas has shied from forcibly disarming militants, fearing that would provoke civil war.
A Palestinian legislator, Ziad Abu Zayyad, told Israel”s Army Radio on Wednesday that Israel had rejected a Palestinian Authority proposal that Israel stop targeting militants if they would lay down their guns.
A senior Israeli government official said Israel has tried that before, but militants simply resumed their activity later. "We don”t want them to lay down arms, we want them to be arrested," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss policy on the record.
Raanan Gissin, an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said, "We”re not going to pay with Israeli lives while they are experimenting in trying to reach understandings with terror organizations and they continue to carry out terror attacks against us."