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Thursday, 20 December, 2001, 10:15 GMT
Hamas may end suicide attacks
Yasser Arafat faces a crowd of supporters from Jerusalem
Arafat is under enormous pressure to rein in militants
The militant Palestinian group Hamas is considering suspending suicide attacks against Israelis.

Sheikh Hassan Youssef, a senior Hamas leader in the West Bank town of Ramallah, said: "Hamas is studying the issue of suspending martyrdom attacks.

Israeli PM Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon has responded to US pressure
"It has not been decided yet, but the movement is aware of the interests of the Palestinian people and will take a decision that stems from their higher interests."

Tension between Hamas and the Palestinian security forces erupted into violence in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday night.

The Islamic militants fought a gun battle with Palestinian police who arrived at the home of a senior Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, seeking to detain him.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, under international pressure to crack down on militants, called on Sunday for an end to armed conflict with Israel.

Hamas has carried out a string of suicide operations against Israeli targets, including three earlier this month that killed 26 people.

Security talks

Israeli and Palestinian security officials held talks on Wednesday night - the first such meeting since the Israeli Government cut ties with Mr Arafat last Thursday.

Hamas
Founded 14 December 1987, just after the the first intifada began
An estimated 700-1,200 core members and tens of thousands of supporters
Labelled a "terrorist group" by the US and the EU
Group does not recognise the right of Israel to exist and wants to establish an Islamic state

But Palestinian officials later said the security meeting was a failure. West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub told the Associated Press that the Israelis offered no political options.

Israeli forces later withdrew from some Palestinian areas near Ramallah, witnesses said.

Earlier, US Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and urged him to help create an environment in which Palestinians can step up their efforts to rein in militant groups.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley in Jerusalem says there is clearly a serious debate about tactics going on among the Palestinian militants.

Our correspondent says much will depend on how the Israelis respond, noting that most Hamas attacks have taken place after Israel has carried out targeted killings of Hamas leaders.

The Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud ez-Zahar, stressed to the BBC that there is a big difference between discussions and a decision.

Palestinian police spray
Palestinian police have closed down Hamas offices
And in a statement on their official website, Hamas denied they would halt suicide attacks.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority is said to have arrested 15 member of its own security forces, and has closed 33 Hamas offices as part of its efforts to enforce a truce with Israel.

The arrest of the 15 Palestinian policemen is the first time in almost 16 months of Palestinian-Israeli violence that members of the security forces have been accused of taking part in attacks.

Palestinian security spokesman Mohammed Dahlan told AP news agency: "We will arrest anyone who violates Authority decisions."

The BBC's James Reynolds in Jerusalem says the latest measures taken by the Palestinian Authority have apparently been successful in recent days in reducing suicide bomb and mortar attacks on Israel.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's James Reynolds in Jerusalem
"There's been less violence over the last few days"
Henry Abala runs a cafe in West Jerusalem
He describes how life there has changed in the past year
See also:

16 Dec 01 | Middle East
Arafat pleads for talks with Israel
16 Dec 01 | Middle East
Palestinian police shut out militants
13 Dec 01 | Middle East
Palestinian leader's house raided
13 Dec 01 | Media reports
Palestinian radio hits back at Israel
13 Dec 01 | Middle East
US and EU to maintain Arafat link
12 Dec 01 | Middle East
Arafat says Sharon has him marked
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