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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Israeli army kills militants in post-election clash

JENIN, West Bank, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Israeli troops killed two Islamic Jihad militants on Tuesday in the first deadly clash since a shock victory by Hamas in a Palestinian election that has thrown Middle East peacemaking into turmoil.

Islamic Jihad said its West Bank military commander Nidal Abu Sadi was one of those killed.

The fighting near the city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank raised tensions just a week after the parliamentary vote, in which Hamas trounced Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's long-dominant Fatah movement.

Islamic Jihad, a group that like Hamas is committed to Israel's destruction and has carried out suicide bombings, urged Hamas and other armed factions to step up attacks on the Jewish state in response.

Israel has called for a boycott of any Palestinian government that includes Hamas, and said on Tuesday it expected to suspend monthly tax payments to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, a severe financial blow.

Israel collects customs revenue on behalf of the Palestinians and hands it over to the governing Palestinian Authority each month.

The next payment is due on Wednesday, Feb. 1, and was expected to total about $55 million. The salaries of about 140,000 Palestinian employees depend to a large extent on the customs revenue, though Hamas may be able to find alternative sources of funding in the Arab world.

In a bid to keep aid flowing, Hamas leaders have suggested they might not have representatives in the government but rather put unaffiliated technocrats in the cabinet.


The two Islamic Jihad militants were killed in a raid in the West Bank village of Arrabe, near Jenin, the army said. There was at least one Israeli casualty, Palestinian witnesses said.

After the incident, Nafez Azzam, an Islamic Jihad leader, called for other factions "to resume resistance against the occupation", a reference to attacks scaled back under a truce last year.

The Quartet of major powers trying to broker Middle East peace -- Russia, the European Union, the United States and the United Nations -- said earlier this week that Hamas must reject violence and recognise Israel or risk losing international aid.

ButRussian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday the world should not cut off funding to the Palestinians after Hamas's victory.

Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri called on other Quartet members to follow Russia's lead and "not to punish the Palestinian people for practising their democratic choice".

Jordan's ambassador to the Palestinian Authority also said on Tuesday that Amman "will continue to support the Palestinian people regardless of who is in government."

The Palestinian Authority faces a financial crunch if Israel withholds the tax money.

Unemployment in the Palestinian territories runs high, at 22 percent, and half the Palestinian population lives in poverty. In Gaza, many Palestinians live on an average of $2 a day.

Israel's foreign ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, said the automatic tax payments to the authority would probably stop until the completion of a policy review ordered by interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Palestinian Economy Minister Mazen Sonnoqrot decried what he called "an irresponsible and grave decision" and said it would have "negative economic and social consequences for the Palestinians".

Masri accused Israel of "trying to steal Palestinian money".

Fatah leaders have so far rejected joining any coalition with Hamas, whose anti-corruption platform, charity network and strong resistance to Israel since the Palestinian uprising began in 2000 propelled it to victory.

Saeed Seyam, a senior Hamas leader, said the group still hoped Fatah would agree to join a government with Hamas.

"But if they do not, then that is their own business," he said. "The Palestinian area is crowded with experts and qualified people."

Abbas plans to meet Hamas leaders in Gaza within the next two weeks, his chief of staff said, denying an Israeli television report the president would hold talks with Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal in Cairo in the next two days. (Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza)
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