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Gaza militants say to halt rocket fire at Israel

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Palestinian militant leaders in the Gaza Strip promised Wednesday to stop firing rockets against Israel after Egypt warned that any further shootings may prompt another war, officials said.

Gunmen in Gaza had stepped up attacks in recent weeks, drawing Israeli strikes that killed 13 Palestinians, most of them militants, in December. Israel said at least 20 rockets and mortar bombs have landed in Israel since the start of 2011.

Egypt, involved in mediating past truces between Gaza militants and Israel, told Gaza's Hamas Islamist rulers Israeli anger over the shootings could prompt a war similar to a campaign in 2008 that devastated much of the coastal territory.

The Egyptians "told Hamas the Gaza situation was similar to that before December 2008," a source familiar with Egypt-Hamas said, referring to the start of the three-week war in which some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.

"Hamas does not want a new escalation unless it is forced into it," the source added.

Hamas leaders later convened talks with factions involved in the shootings at Israel.

"Factions agreed to recommit to the national understanding to stop rocket firing," as long as Israel stops its air strikes and other attacks, an official at the meeting told Reuters.

Saleh Zidan, a senior leader of the Palestinian Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), told Reuters top Egyptian security officials he met in Cairo Tuesday made their concerns known about a new Israeli offensive.

'NOT GIVING A PRETEXT'

"The Egyptian leadership is in favor of not giving a pretext to the Israeli government to launch a new war on the Gaza Strip," Zidan said.

The DFLP is a major faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization, at odds with Hamas over the 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza. The group has claimed several attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip over the past two years, and was one of the groups that said Wednesday they would now withhold fire.

Israel has said Hamas has largely held its fire over the past two years but the surge in rocket attacks meant it was not doing enough to curb other groups, which say their strikes are in retaliation for Israeli raids in Gaza and the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing foreign journalists in Jerusalem Tuesday, said militants in Gaza would be making "a terrible, terrible mistake" if they continued to "test our will to defend our people."

An Israeli air strike Tuesday killed an Islamic Jihad militant.

In Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, hundreds of Islamic Jihad supporters urged the group, which has also fired rockets in the past two years, to avenge the death of Mohammed Najjar, who was targeted while he was riding a motorcycle.

"There will be no calm as long as assassinations continue," said Abu Hamza, a local Islamic Jihad commander. "Rocket firing will continue as long as Israel continues its foolish actions."

(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Maria Golovnina)

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