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A senior Palestinian religious leader has issued an edict banning shooting attacks against Israeli security forces and settlements, out of concern they might lead to a postponement of the pullout from the Gaza Strip and part of northern Samaria.

"Anyone who causes the delay of the withdrawal of the occupation, or prolongs its existence on Islamic soil, is committing a crime according to Islamic law," Sheikh Jamal al-Bawatna, the mufti of the Ramallah district, says in a fatwa issued in the past few days.

He was responding to a question from Fatah institutions in the region, asking what should be done to those who "disturb the completion of the Israeli withdrawal."

The sheikh writes that all Muslims have "the categorical right to act by any accepted means according to religious law, such as armed struggle, negotiations or any other means that will free their land."

But, he says, they must not lend a hand to a prolongation of the occupation that would lead to the killing of innocent people.

Like other muftis, al-Bawatna receives his salary from the Palestinian Authority, but nevertheless the fatwa is extremely significant since this is the first time that a Muslim cleric has forbidden shooting at Israeli forces.

It is also an official message from the PA to its population and the armed organizations that are liable to shoot at IDF soldiers or settlements during the withdrawal. It will oblige the spiritual leaders of the various armed organizations to issue their own interpretations of the fatwa.

Al-Bawatna addresses the groups directly and says, "The nationalist and Islamic factions must cooperate in joint responsibility under these very trying circumstances. There is no forgiveness for anyone who ... goes against the [PA] regime or tries to exploits the circumstances to serve the interests of his faction."

The sheikh also reminds the population that "Mahmoud Abbas is the elected president ... and there is a religious obligation to obey his orders. Disobeying is an attempt to weaken his authority, which is considered a severe sin according to all the parameters of Islamic law."