Palestinian militants uniting to plan attacks

Groups decrying peace talks plan renewed, 'more effective' attacks against Israel.

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RAMALLAH // The military wing of Hamas has announced that Palestinian militant groups have agreed to forge a common front to co-ordinate "more effective attacks" against Israel. The statement was made late on Thursday as the Palestinian and Israeli delegations in Washington wound up their first round of direct talks in 20 months.

The decision by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to agree to direct talks has been opposed by every Palestinian political faction except Mr Abbas' own Fatah movement. The military wings of 12 Palestinian factions agreed on Monday to a "set of principles in working against the Israeli occupation", according to Abu Obeida, the spokesman for Hamas' Izzedine al Qassam Brigades. "We declare that the actions of resistance have gone into a new and advanced stage of co-operation in the field at the highest levels in preparation for more effective attacks against the enemy," Mr Obeida was quoted by Reuters as saying on Thursday.

The Qassam Brigades claimed responsibility for two attacks on Israeli settlers in recent days. One just outside Hebron killed four people and another just outside Ramallah wounded two, one seriously. The shootings were clearly timed to coincide with the direct negotiations in Washington, but nevertheless surprised observers in view of Hamas' stated position that the negotiations were already doomed from the outset.

Mkhaimar Abusada, a Gaza-based political analyst, said the shootings were meant to send two emphatic messages: that Hamas would not be ignored and that it was still capable of operating in the West Bank, where members of the Islamist group over the past few years have been targeted in a lengthy security crackdown by the Palestinian Authority. But Mr Abusada also said he had thought Hamas was not interested in any serious escalation at the moment.

Indeed, before Mr Abbas agreed to go to the peace negotiations, Hamas leaders were keen to emphasize that their focus for the time being was on improving living conditions in Gaza and not provoking Israel. In the wake of the West Bank settler shootings, police stations across the Gaza Strip were evacuated, while members of Hamas' military wing as well as political leaders went underground in anticipation of possible retaliation from the Israel military.

Hamas will be wary of being seen to provoke any repeat of the devastating month-long Israeli war on the Gaza trip that began in December 2008. In addition, the two settler shootings and Thursday's announcement were also evidence of a "real fear" among Palestinian factions that Mr Abbas was not strong enough to resist concerted international pressure to sign a peace deal in due time that would "compromise Palestinian constants", said Mr Abusada.

"All Palestinian factions, not just Hamas, feel that if Abbas could not resist American pressure to go to direct negotiations even though none of his pre-conditions on settlement construction and terms of reference were met, he will not be able to withstand pressure to sign an agreement that falls far short on [the] three main issues - Jerusalem, refugees and borders."