Agreement in Hamas: Cease-fire to End Friday

Group says will fire only if attacked, ending truce because Israel is not 'abiding by its terms'.

After expressing contradictory positions on Sunday, Hamas' leadership on Monday adopted a united stance: The cease-fire with Israel, which expires this Friday, will not be extended.

On Sunday, the Damascus-based head of Hamas' political bureau, Khaled Meshal, had said precisely that, but Gaza-based leaders of the movement insisted that no decision had yet been reached.

Monday, however, Hamas' spokesman in the Gaza Strip, Ayman Taha, said the movement had concluded that there was no point in extending the truce "as long as Israel isn't abiding by its terms" - though he added that talks on continuing the cease-fire were still taking place.

Specifically, Taha said, Israel was supposed to have expanded the truce to the West Bank - something Hamas demanded but Israel in fact never promised - and opened the Gaza border crossings, and "this hasn't happened."

Asked whether this means Hamas will launch a massive barrage at Israeli targets on Friday, Taha replied that the organization would only respond to Israeli aggression.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Monday that Israel is not "running into Gaza," but is also not afraid of a military operation there.

"If the lull is violated and the situation requires it," he told Austrian President Heinz Fischer, in Jerusalem, "we will act in the proper manner."

Israeli defense sources said they believe Hamas is still internally divided over whether to extend the truce, but in any case, the army will heighten its alert along the Gaza border lest Hamas opt for escalation.

Amos Gilad, who heads the Defense Ministry's political-security department, told Israel Radio Monday that if Hamas violates the cease-fire, "we need to take suitable military action." Nevertheless, he added, he opposes a large-scale ground operation in Gaza, because "we've already tried military solutions in the past, and this has not always brought immediate results."

Moreover, said Gilad, such an operation would make Israel responsible for 1.5 million Palestinian residents of Gaza, inflame the Muslim world and endanger the peace with Jordan and Egypt.

Meanwhile, Israel freed 227 Palestinian prisoners Monday, as a gesture to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Most were released to the West Bank, but 18 went to Gaza.

Abbas, who welcomed the prisoners at his Ramallah office, said, "our joy won't be complete until we bring back all 11,000 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel." He promised that he would do "everything" to achieve this.

He also expressed hope that Hamas would not immediately jail the prisoners released to Gaza because they belong to the rival Fatah movement.

Also Monday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that he and U.S. President-elect Barack Obama had vowed during telephone talks to make progress on Mideast peace a key international goal next year, the Associated Press reported.

Brown was speaking at a London conference on investment in the Palestinian economy.