Hamas works to end upsurge in violence

The new Hamas-led Palestinian government is quietly working to end an upsurge in violence, urging rival militant groups in the Gaza Strip to refrain from launching rockets at Israel without official permission, officials on both sides confirmed today.

The new Hamas-led Palestinian government is quietly working to end an upsurge in violence, urging rival militant groups in the Gaza Strip to refrain from launching rockets at Israel without official permission, officials on both sides confirmed today.

Although the rocket attacks have not stopped and Hamas says it still supports violent resistance against Israel, its subtle efforts at persuasion look like an attempt to stabilise a chaotic situation so that it can focus on governing the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“We want resistance to be arranged and organised,” said government spokesman Ghazi Hamad, adding that Hamas would try to get control over the rocket fire by negotiating with other militant factions. Hamas has not been participating in the rocket attacks.

In the latest violence, an eight-year-old Palestinian girl was killed when an Israeli artillery shell hit her house in northern Gaza, hospital officials and witnesses said.

The army had no immediate comment on the incident, but confirmed it was shelling populated areas where militants fire rockets. Three rockets fired from Beit Lahiya landed in Israel on Monday, the army said.

Relatives and neighbours in private cars drove bleeding children to the small local hospital.

Doctors feverishly bandaged a wailing infant on a blood-splattered hospital bed as others took away the dusty and bloody body of the dead girl.

Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in January on a platform pledging to end government corruption and improve public services.

But since being sworn into office less than two weeks ago, the government has found itself facing international isolation, a financial crisis, Palestinian infighting and now growing violence with Israel.

The fighting with Israel has escalated in recent days, with militants repeatedly firing rockets into Israel and the army responding with airstrikes, artillery fire and attacks from naval gunboats.

A total of 17 Palestinians, including 13 militants, have been killed in the Israeli offensive since Friday. There have been no Israeli casualties from the rocket fire.

A senior Palestinian security official in Gaza said Hamas has not officially proposed a cease-fire but is sending clear signals that it wants quiet.

“Without a cease-fire, Hamas can’t build anything in Gaza. It can’t get anything done while F-16s and Apache helicopters are flying overhead, Israeli artillery is being fired and rocket attacks are going on,” he said.

Hamas officials have confirmed that the group is interested in extending a year-old cease-fire with Israel. Hamas has largely honoured the truce.

An Israeli security official said it appears Hamas is trying to regulate the rocket fire because uncontrolled violence is against its interest. The official was not permitted to be identified under military rules.

It’s unclear whether other Palestinian groups will follow suit. Rival factions are interested in seeing Hamas fail, officials said.

Islamic Jihad, which has been behind much of the rocket fire, said it would continue the attacks.

“It is time to be united against the occupation aggression and not to talk about a new period of calm,” Mohammed al-Hindi, an Islamic Jihad leader, said in a radio interview.

Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, is under intense pressure from Israel and the international community to renounce violence. Hamas has rejected the calls to moderate.

In Luxembourg, European Union foreign ministers endorsed a freeze of EU aid to the Palestinian government.

The US and Norway have also suspended aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Hamad denounced the decision as part of a policy of starvation. He said it was “punishment of the Palestinian people for their democratic choice ... and will lead for more tension and instability in the region.”

Israel also has suspended the monthly transfer of £30million in tax revenues it collects for the Palestinians.

The sanctions have already crippled the Palestinian treasury just two weeks after the Hamas-led Cabinet took office and Palestinian officials said they did not know when they would be able to pay the monthly salaries of the government’s 140,000 employees. Paycheques were due on April 1.

On Sunday, Israel’s Security Cabinet, a small group of top ministers, declared the Hamas-led Palestinian government a “hostile entity” and ruled out contacts with it.

In the wake of the government decision, the Israeli military today ejected Palestinian security officials from a co-ordination office in the West Bank town of Jericho.

If peace talks cannot be resumed, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he will unilaterally draw Israel’s final border with the West Bank. His plan calls for withdrawing from much of the West Bank, while strengthening key settlement blocs. The plan falls short of Palestinian claims to all of the West Bank.

Olmert hopes to complete the withdrawal before the next US presidential election in 2008, a senior aide said in a published report Monday. Olmert, whose Kadima Party won last month’s parliamentary election, had previously said he aimed to complete his plan by the end of his term in 2010.

But Yoram Turbowicz, who is slated to be Olmert’s chief of staff, said it needed to be finished while US President George Bush remained in office, according to the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. Olmert’s aides believe Bush would be amenable to the programme.

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