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Spiritual leader says Hamas observing `cooling off' period

The spiritual leader of the radical Islamic group Hamas, which has claimed three suicide bombings in Israel this year, says the group is observing a "cooling off" period.

But Sheik Ahmed Yassin, in an interview Sunday with The Associated Press, said the lull would last only if Israel stopped its punitive measures against Palestinian civilians - such as economic closures, house demolitions and land seizures."We have stopped, and many times we've stopped for months, but the Israelis still continue their attacks against Palestinian civilians," Yassin said. "Why don't they stop?"

David Bar-Illan, an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said there were too many strings attached to make Yassin's cease-fire proposals credible. Among the Hamas demands is a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, and the uprooting of all Jewish settlements.

However, Bar-Illan said Israel welcomed the "change in tone" by Hamas, which since its creation 10 years ago has pledged itself to the destruction of Israel.

Hamas claimed responsibility for cafe bombing in Tel Aviv in March that killed four people, including the bomber, and two recent suicide bombings in Jerusalem - one in an open-air market and the other in a pedestrian mall. Those attacks killed 26 people, including five suicide attackers. Six weeks have passed since the most recent attack.

Despite Yassin's claim, a senior official said on condition of anonymity that Israeli intelligence indicated a Hamas cell was planning to carry out another bombing attack in Israel.

Yassin's release from jail was part of a swap for two Israeli Mossad agents caught in Jordan after a botched attempt on the life of another Hamas leader.

Since his release, Yassin, 61, has spoken frequently of a truce with Israel and signaled moderation to his followers by meeting in his home with an Israeli rabbi, Menachem Fruman, an advocate of Jewish-Muslim dialogue.

But Yassin has spoken with equal emphasis of continuing the "jihad," or holy war, to reclaim Palestinian land and build an independent state. The Hamas slogans on his home proclaimed the paraplegic spiritual leader a "mujahid," or warrior, and the "sheik of the intefadeh," the six-year uprising against Israeli occupation.

Yassin was quick to point out that he was not offering a full cease-fire: "When I mentioned a halt, I didn't mean stop in the full sense of the word," he said in a rasping, high-pitched voice. "I mean a cooling off of activities."

Yassin and other Hamas leaders have suggested they would only consider a long-term cease-fire if Israel took a series of unlikely steps, including withdrawal from all the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.