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Israel Holds Back After Attack

Israel signaled Friday it will hold off on harsh retaliation for a bombing and shooting attack by Palestinian militants that killed six Israeli workers at a Gaza cargo crossing, giving newly elected Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas a chance to rein in violent groups.

In response to the attack, however, Israel indefinitely closed the Karni crossing, through which goods flow in and out of the fenced-in coastal strip, as well as the Erez crossing used by journalists, diplomats and some Palestinian workers with jobs in Israel.

Thursday night's shooting rampage at the Karni crossing, Gaza's main lifeline, marked the militants' first major challenge to Abbas, who has spoken out against violence and has said he would try to negotiate a truce.

Three Palestinian gunmen were killed in the attack, and three armed groups claimed responsibility, including Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which has ties to Abbas' ruling Fatah movement.

Palestinian officials said Friday that such attacks are to be expected unless Israel halts its military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But the Palestinian Authority also told militant groups that attacks against the border crossings harm innocent Palestinian civilians. The closures prevent the passage not only of Palestinian workers into Israel but also of food, medicine and other supplies into the Palestinian areas.

Israel and the United States have said they would judge Abbas by his actions.

However, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni suggested Friday that Israel would give Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, more time to deal with the militants. "In order to try to prevent the next attack, we have to try and strengthen Abu Mazen as a leader, based on the assumption that he can control the terror groups," Livni told Israel Army Radio, adding that Israel would draw the line at endangering its security.

The Israeli military had eased checking at Karni in recent weeks to cut down on waiting periods. A third major Gaza crossing near the southern town of Rafah, used by Palestinian travelers, was closed last month after an attack there killed five Israeli soldiers.

The closures mean Gaza is now largely cut off, and the renewed hardships hit Palestinians just a week before a major Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, a time for shopping and family visits. Many Palestinians, exhausted after more than four years of fighting, were complaining privately about the militants' targeting crossings.

Abbas has said he will not use force against militants. Instead, he is expected to try to co-opt them by asking Al Aqsa gunmen, many of them former policemen, to return to their jobs, and by offering Hamas a say in decision-making. The Islamic militant group has also said it would participate in legislative elections in July.

In coming weeks, Abbas is to conduct Egyptian-brokered talks with the militants in Gaza and in Cairo. Egypt has renewed a proposal for a one-year suspension of attacks, according to a senior Hamas official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Militants are divided on how to respond to Abbas.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said the attack "was a message to the Israeli enemy, definitely not to Abu Mazen." He said meetings with Abbas would resume soon "to organize the Palestinian house."

The top Hamas official in the West Bank, Hassan Yousef, said the group is ready to suspend attacks as part of a deal with Abbas. Asked about Thursday's attack, Yousef said Hamas had freedom of action as long as there is no agreement.

Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon are emerging as a major spoiler. Hezbollah is funding small groups within the militant factions, including some Al Aqsa gunmen in the West Bank city of Nablus.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Ghassan Khatib said Abbas wants a mutual cease-fire, including Israeli assurances that it halts its military operations. "He does not say that we have to stop the Palestinian attacks while the Israelis can continue their attacks without any response," Khatib said.

Khatib said he believes the militants want a truce, "and the question now is whether Israel is ready for that or not."

Israeli Transport Minister Meir Shetreet said Abbas' attempt at persuasion would fail and that he must crack down. "There has to be zero tolerance for terrorists," Shetreet told Israel Radio. "If he (Abbas) doesn't do this, he misses a great opportunity to lead the Palestinians in a different direction."

The attack happened just before 11 p.m. Thursday.

Militants detonated dozens of pounds of explosives, blowing out a large hole in a door in a security wall at the crossing, said Israeli Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, commander in the Gaza division.

Kochavi said the military has been trying to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement, and that the militants "are ruining all of this for their people."

On Thursday, Yousef, the West Bank Hamas leader, said the group, responsible for dozens of bloody suicide bombings, is considering stopping violence in Israel, recognizing that Palestinians are weary after four years of conflict.

"We read the regional and the international reality and the changes that have taken place based on this reality and we take positions according to these changes," Yousef said.

Because of the violence and Israeli restrictions aimed at stopping attackers, the Palestinian economy has been shattered, and many people have been reduced to poverty. Peace talks that stalled before the violence erupted in 2000 have not been resumed.

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