"We talked with them on the bus and we told them that Jericho and the West Bank are different from the Gaza Strip and that the Israeli army controls this region. They have to respect the law."

Israel said 181 members of the Hilles clan, one of the most powerful Gaza families associated with Fatah, sought refuge in Israel on Saturday after a fierce assault by Hamas on their Gaza City neighbourhood, which killed 11 people and wounded more than 90 others.

Hamas in turn said on Monday that it had released Zakaria al-Agha, Abbas's senior Fatah representative in the Gaza Strip, after four days in detention.

"This is a goodwill gesture from the government in Gaza in response to the Arab calls," an interior ministry spokesman said.

Arrival in Jericho

Israel's Mordechai said that the 87 men who arrived in Jericho on Monday would not be allowed to leave the town for the time being.

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Aftermath of the Gaza raid


Fatah men flee Gaza

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An Israeli security official said 16 of the Palestinians remained in hospital in Israel and that 13 were still undergoing Israeli questioning.

The official said four Hilles clan members arrived in the West Bank on Sunday without fanfare.

The Israeli army initially said it had planned to transport members of the Helles clan to the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Abbas's government is based.

It was not immediately clear why the destination was changed, but Israel's ynetnews reported that Israel dictated the change of destination.

Israel ealier said it had sent 60 Helles family members back to Gaza, citing a request from Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister.

"Israeli authorities halted the process, however, as they received information that they were being arrested by Hamas and that their lives were in immediate danger," the Israeli army said in a statement.

An Israeli civil rights group had appealed to the country's high court, arguing it would be inhumane to force members of the Hilles clan to return to Gaza.

Hamas rationale

Hamas says it carried out the raid on the Hilles compound on Saturday to detain men it accused of carrying out a July 25 bombing that killed five Hamas members and a girl.

Hamas officials now say the Hilles family members are welcome to return to Gaza, but the fact that they fled casts doubt on their innocence.

"We assured them of their safety," Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official, said

Taher Nunu, a Hamas spokesman, said: "We never wanted anyone to leave in this regrettable way ... This is a path that does harm to them, because by the mere act of fleeing a person places himself in the realm of suspicion."

Many Fatah leaders in the occupied West Bank still blame members of the Hilles family for not resisting Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007.

The tug-of-war over the Hilles family underscored lingering resentment within Fatah more than a year after Hamas routed Abbas's faction and violently seized control of the Gaza Strip.

Tit-for-tat crackdowns

Confrontations between Hamas and Fatah, the two main Palestinian factions, surged after the July 25 bombing, which triggered tit-for-tat crackdowns in Gaza by Hamas and in the West Bank by Fatah.

Abbas's forces in the northern West Bank city of Jenin arrested 25 Hamas leaders on Monday, including 15 members of the group's local Shura leadership council.

Sufian Abu Zaydeh, a Gaza native and former cabinet minister from Fatah, said the Shijaia incident marked a new low in Palestinian infighting.

"When a man stands between two choices: to be killed by his people or to be arrested by his enemy, and he reaches a conclusion that it is better to be arrested by his enemy, it shows you how cruel the situation is in Gaza," he told Israel's Army Radio on Monday.