A local Hamas leader indicated Monday that the militant group will not attack Israelis during the Palestinian presidential campaign and would consider a formal truce with Israel in the latest signs of hope for renewed peace efforts in the region.
However, just hours after Sheik Hassan Yousef spoke, two Hamas militants were killed as they tried to attack an Israeli military outpost in Gaza, and another Hamas official said there was no such truce.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and a crucial coalition partner were locked in an angry budget standoff that could bring down the government and delay its planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
There has been a sharp drop in violence since Yasser Arafat's death Nov. 11, with Palestinian militants cutting down on attacks and the Israeli army scaling back raids in advance of the Jan. 9 election for Arafat's replacement.
Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks during the past four years of violence. On Monday, Yousef, the top Hamas leader in the West Bank, suggested the group would not strike during the election campaign.
"In the current situation, many political and militant groups have halted their attacks. They are waiting and exploring the new era," said Yousef, who was recently released from an Israeli prison after serving a 28-month sentence.
Though Yousef is the Hamas leader in the West Bank, the militant group's top leadership, which is based in Lebanon, denied any halt to violence, citing a raid on an Israeli army base in Gaza on Monday.
In that attack, two Hamas militants approached the base near the settlement of Netzarim. Video released by Hamas showed soldiers shooting one attacker, whose body then exploded. The second attacker detonated explosives and threw hand grenades for several minutes before a tank killed him. There were no Israeli casualties.
"We do not see any contradiction between continuing the attacks and the resistance and arranging the Palestinian house," said Osama Hamdan, the group's spokesman in Beirut.
Interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has been critical of the violent aspect of the uprising and has met with militant groups in hopes of reaching a ceasefire.
The al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent group with ties to Abbas' Fatah movement, said Monday it was considering such a truce.
"We are watching the changes after Arafat's death," said Ala'a Sanakra, an al-Aqsa leader in the West Bank city of Nablus. "If there is a real truce on the table, we will agree to it."
Sharon has pledged a number of gestures to Abbas -- who is the top candidate in the election -- saying he is prepared to coordinate his planned Gaza pullout next year with the Palestinians.
But a fight with one of his top coalition partners threatened Sharon's grasp on power, and with it the withdrawal.
In an effort to expand his minority 55-member coalition in the 120-member Knesset, Sharon has invited two ultra-Orthodox parties to join, promising to transfer 420 million shekels (US$98 million) to their interests in exchange for their vote on next year's budget.
That enraged the fiercely secular Shinui Party, which threatened to bolt the government with its 14 seats. The opposition Labor Party, which has provided Sharon a safety net in support of the withdrawal, said it won't vote for the budget because of cuts in social spending.