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Militants rebuff Abbas truce idea

Hamas chief calls for Israel to halt its attacks first

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Islamic militant groups behind many suicide bombings dismissed yesterday a call from Mahmoud Abbas, the interim Palestinian leader, to halt attacks in the run-up to a Jan. 9 election to replace Yasser Arafat.

Abbas, who is trying to work out a deal with rival Palestinian groups on a cease-fire and possible power-sharing, resisted a call by the groups for a share of power despite their planned boycott of the election.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad do not accept the presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. They refuse to take part in governments formed as a result of agreements with Israel and say they will not participate in the election.

However, the two movements, responsible for hundreds of deadly attacks against Israelis in four years of violence, are demanding a leadership role outside the electoral process. They want a "unified leadership" that would exert influence on the Palestinian government.

Abbas was cool to the idea and recommended instead that even if they skip the presidential race, the radical groups try their hand in parliamentary elections to be held at an unspecified later date. He is said to be proposing parliamentary and local elections four or five months after the vote.

The only other election held since the Palestinian Authority was established, in 1996, combined presidential and parliamentary voting, and the Islamic groups did not take part.

Abbas is also urging the radical groups to halt attacks against Israelis during the election campaign, said Ziad Abu Amr, a lawmaker participating in the talks.

Abbas "said the elections need security, stability and quiet," Abu Amr said. "There is no possibility to conduct elections while we are in a situation of war and conflict."

Hamas leaders dismissed the truce call. "This subject is not under discussion in Hamas," said Ismail Haniyeh, a leader of the Islamic group. Another leader, Mahmoud Zahar, said that Israel must first stop its attacks, and then Hamas would consider how to respond.

Islamic Jihad's leader, Sheik Nafez Azzam, said it was "too early" to consider a cease-fire. "The top priority is to confront the [Israeli] occupation and its aggression," he said.

Since Arafat's death on Thursday, Israel has scaled back its military operations, especially in the Gaza Strip, though nightly arrest raids continue in the West Bank.

Abbas served briefly as Palestinian prime minister in 2003 and succeeded in negotiating a unilateral Palestinian cease-fire that summer. However, it broke down after six weeks in a flurry of Palestinian attacks and Israeli counterstrikes.

Abbas, 69, is the leading candidate in the race to replace Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority, but he won't run unopposed. Younger members of his Fatah movement favor Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank Fatah leader serving five life terms in an Israeli prison. At least two independent candidates are considering running as well.

Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan, who was considered a possible Arafat successor, took himself out of the race yesterday, throwing his support to Abbas, calling him a possible "bridge between the past, the present, and the future."

European Union members are seeking ways to ensure the election is a success. A British diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Britain is paying for an adviser to help the Palestinians set up the elections.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who met Sunday with Abbas, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, and Dahlan, "is convinced that the present leadership can organize elections in 60 days," said Solana's spokeswoman, Christina Gallach.

Also yesterday, an Israeli economist totaled up the cost of four years of violence to the two sides and came up with $12 billion for Israel and $4.5 billion for the Palestinians.

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