Palestinian armed groups in Gaza are observing a 24-hour halt to rocket fire against Israel at the request of Egyptian mediators, a senior official of the ruling Islamist Hamas group said on Monday.
Ayman Taha said the brief ceasefire went into effect on Sunday evening. He said Hamas might consider a longer truce if Israel were to reciprocate by ceasing all military attacks in Gaza and lifting an embargo on the impoverished territory.
”Hamas and other factions agreed in order to give a chance to the Egyptian mediation and to show that the problem was always on the Israeli side,” Taha told Reuters.
”If a new [truce] offer were made, which met our demands, then we would be willing to study it.”
Asked about Taha’s statements, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said they were ”not true at all”. Israeli government officials were not immediately available to respond. An Israeli military spokesperson said that, as of Sunday evening, Palestinians in Gaza had fired at least one rocket and four mortar bombs across the border.
A six-month Egyptian-brokered truce between Israel and Hamas expired on Friday with exchanges of fire across the border, raising fears of a wider conflict.
Word of the 24-hour halt coincided with fresh signals from Israel that it might be ready to consider a new truce with Hamas, despite calls on the government to end the Islamist rule in the Gaza Strip with a major offensive.
A member of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s security Cabinet questioned the long-term efficacy of any major military sweep of the crowded and impoverished coastal strip, and said renewing the truce could be an option.
”The calm is, of course, one alternative, and it is an alternative that can be seriously examined,” Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog told Israel Radio. ”I, like many of my colleagues, am ready to consider continuing the calm, on terms that are comfortable for Israel.”
Spiral of retaliation
Israel would likely limit any broader assault on Gaza to air strikes targeting Hamas leaders. But analysts believe that would invite retaliatory Hamas rocket barrages reaching deeper into Israel, in turn triggering a bloody Israeli invasion of Gaza.
Taha said an escalation by Israel would trigger Palestinian retaliation, including suicide bombings inside the Jewish state.
Hamas’s 1988 founding charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state but in the past has offered to suspend hostilities as part of a long-term accord.
The Islamist group accused Israel of reneging on undertakings to open crossings into Gaza, a lifeline of humanitarian and commercial goods for 1.5 million Palestinians.
Israel blamed security threats for the closures, and many were dismayed at the truce’s failure to advance negotiations for the return of an Israeli soldier held in Gaza.
The unwritten six-month ceasefire began unravelling in early November with an Israel raid to blow up a tunnel, in which 5 militants were killed.
Since the truce ended, dozens of short-range rockets and mortar bombs have been fired into Israel from Gaza. Most of the rocket fire was claimed by Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group with loose links to Hamas. Over the weekend, an Israeli air strike killed one Palestinian militant. — Reuters