Hamas leader Khaled Meshal has instructed the group's military wing to cease attacks on Israeli targets, senior sources in Fatah say.
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The sources say Meshal issued the order based on understandings between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Meshal during their recent talks in Cairo.
Israeli defense sources say they are unaware of such an order.
According to the sources in Fatah, the largest faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization, Meshal ordered a de facto cease-fire with Israel not only in the Gaza Strip, but also in the West Bank. Hamas had already refrained from launching rockets from Gaza.
The sources say Meshal issued the order in late November, after the first round of reconciliation talks in Cairo between Hamas and Fatah.
After that meeting, it emerged that the two organizations agreed also to focus on a popular struggle along the lines of the Arab Spring.
Israeli defense sources say they were unaware that Meshal had issued a direct instruction to activists in the West Bank and Gaza. They add that there has been no strategic or ideological change in Hamas' policy.
Rather, Hamas realizes that this is a bad time for terror attacks, both because of Palestinian public opinion and a fear of an Israeli reprisal that would compromise Hamas' control of the Gaza Strip.
But if the group's terror networks in the West Bank spot an opportunity to carry out a significant attack, they are expected to take advantage of the chance, as they have done in the past.
Hamas' leadership in Gaza said it was surprised by Meshal's statement and that "the only way to liberate the occupied lands is through the armed struggle." The Hamas interior minister in Gaza, Fathi Hamad, added that the group's "internal leadership" does not necessarily intend to abide by Meshal's policy.
Meshal reiterated late last week that popular protest had "the power of a tsunami" and has already proved itself in the Arab world. But he added that the organization would not give up the use of violence against Israel.
"We and Fatah now have a common basis that we can work on, and that is popular protest, which expresses the power of the people," Meshal said.
The Hamas leader also expressed his support for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. "Fatah and we have political differences, but the common ground is agreement on a state within the 1967 borders," he said.
Meshal said the decision to focus on the popular struggle was made by the Hamas advisory body, the Shura Council. This means all senior members of the organization were on board.
The Fatah sources said Hamas does not intend to officially recognize Israel or accept peace agreements with it. Rather, the focus is simply popular protest and consent to a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. The sources say Hamas does not plan to stop arming itself, and will respond if attacked by Israel.
The Fatah sources say the statements by the Hamas officials in Gaza show that some leaders in the enclave might seek to undermine the move by Meshal, and that they might also launch attacks on Israel, mainly to prove their political power in the internal struggle in Hamas.
But the sources added that Meshal clearly seems interested in unity and in bringing Hamas into the PLO.
Militants from other factions in the Gaza Strip are still launching attacks, like the group that was hit Tuesday by the Israel Air Force. Islamic Jihad, one of these factions, is not expected to join Meshal's move.
The Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the Palestinians had not proposed to renew negotiations based on a prisoner release.
Erekat said that stopping the settlements, negotiations based on the 1967 borders, and the release of prisoners are not preconditions but rather Israeli obligations. Without them, the Palestinians don't see a renewal of talks with Israel, he said.
Meanwhile, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Aziz Duwaik, a Hamas member, said yesterday that parliament would convene a joint session in both Gaza and the West Bank as early as the beginning of February.
Parliamentary activity has been suspended since June 2007, after Hamas' coup in the Gaza Strip. According to Duwaik, a Palestinian unity government will be established at the end of January, and it will have no political tasks other than preparing for elections.
Duwaik denied reports that he would head the unity government.
Barak Ravid contributed to this article.