- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Hamas-led Palestinian government says it will not act against armed factions lining up to attack Israel with rockets, even as a top Israeli general warned the new Palestinian regime that it will be “hit hard” if the rocketing continues.

“We do not give instructions, at all, to any party on the ground. The government does not instruct them at all,” Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said last week in his only interview since assuming office two weeks ago.

Hamas has honored a cease-fire with Israel for more than a year even as other factions have continued attacks.

Mr. Haniyeh did not specifically encourage such attacks during the interview but said his government was committed to resistance to “the real issue: the continuation of the [Israeli] aggression and the occupation against the Palestinian people.”

Militant groups in Gaza in recent weeks have fired more than a dozen Qassam rockets at Israeli communities, most of which have done little damage. Israel has responded with hundreds of artillery shells, aimed either at Palestinian militants or empty spaces.

At least 16 Palestinians died last week, most of them buried amid gunfire by fellow militants, but a stray Israeli shell killed a girl inside her home. No Israelis have died, but an 8-month-old boy was wounded in the brain and eye.

The United States has blocked efforts by Arab nations at the United Nations to condemn the Israeli artillery attacks.

Hamas has kept its own Izzedien al Qassam Brigades inside their training camps since it won control of the Palestinian parliament in Jan. 25 elections. But groups aligned with the Fatah faction of deceased leader Yasser Arafat have poured into zones vacated by Israel late last year to position their rocket launchers.

The Fatah militants say they are taking advantage of the absence of enforcement from the new government, prompting the Israeli military to threaten harsh retaliation.

“If the heads of Hamas do not take action to stop the firing, they will have to be hit hard and pay a heavy price,” Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, head of the Operations Branch in the General Staff, said in the Haaretz newspaper.

“What we’ve seen until now is only a promo. It will become worse and worse, unless they come to their senses. When it comes to terror from Gaza, we have to set a zero-tolerance threshold.”

Mr. Haniyeh characterized the militant groups’ actions as a natural response to Israeli provocation, and Hamas repeated that argument yesterday in response to a suicide attack that killed eight Israelis in Tel Aviv.

He demanded that the U.N. Security Council insist on “the ending [of] the attacks that the Palestinian people are subject to, and protect this nation from such ongoing aggression.”

While tolerating Fatah attacks on Israel, Hamas remains sharply at odds with the party it defeated in the January elections, with the two groups struggling for control of the Palestinian security services.

Delivering a sermon in a Gaza Strip mosque on Friday, Mr. Haniyeh used a Koranic term of contempt — “hypocrites and liars” — to describe those preventing Hamas from taking full control of security.

During the interview in his new, modest offices near the Mediterranean coast in Gaza City, Mr. Haniyeh said he did not expect the struggle to devolve into armed battles between the factions.

“We are committed to a strategy not to open a Palestinian-Palestinian clash, and protecting Palestinian blood,” he said, noting that Hamas had shown restraint whenever such clashes seemed imminent. “We have proved this in more than one defining moment.”

“Our Palestinian people managed to overcome all the hard crossroads and I hope — [Allah willing] — that we will be able to reinforce this strategy. As a government, we will work to enhance Palestinian national unity, and will protect the Palestinian territory from any internal fights.”

• Distributed by World News & Features

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