Nidal Al-Mughrabi
December 18, 2008 - 1:00am

As a six-month ceasefire with Israel neared its end on Thursday Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were divided on whether they wanted it renewed.

But the majority seemed braced for a surge of violence.

On its side of the tense border, Israel insisted the "lull" was in the Palestinians' interest and ought to continue indefinitely. But Israelis in the firing line of rockets from Gaza were also worried that the truce would soon be over.

The Islamist group Hamas which controls Gaza says the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire ends on Friday and will not be renewed. But it has not said what will replace it.

"The calm ends on December 19 and Hamas' position is against renewing the calm," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.

"The factions' duty after the calm expires is to protect the people, defend the Palestinian people and confront any aggression ... The Zionist enemy bears the responsibility for the end of calm," he told Reuters.

But at the same time, Hamas has not threatened any immediate surge of violence and has not ruled out discussing new offers for a renewal of the truce.

Each side blames the other for the way "the calm" has frayed since early November. On Wednesday, 20 rockets fired from Gaza struck Israeli soil, one hitting a supermarket parking lot in Sderot, where nerves are jangled by such blasts.

An Israeli air strike killed a Palestinian on Wednesday and Israel launched two further strikes overnight at what it said were militant targets in Gaza.


Some Gaza residents fervently hope the deal survives.

"I hope the truce can be renewed so we can continue to live in our houses," said Umm Mohammed, a mother of ten whose house east of Gaza city lies close to the fortified border fence with Israel, from where tanks have mounted past incursions.

"If there was a raid I would have to leave the house with my children because raids can take days sometimes," she said.

But in Sderot, Israelis scoffed at the notion of "calm."

"What calm? Did we have any calm so far? If this is calm then what will we have when it escalates?," said Yossi Timsit on Thursday, as sirens sounded and fellow residents ran for cover.

The people of Sderot were being "abandoned" to constant fear and all-day alerts, he said, calling on the Israeli army to stop the rockets one way or another.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said extending the truce was good for both Gazans and the Israelis.

"We have said publicly on many occasions that the lull is in the best interests of both sides, and we still believe it," Palmor told Reuters.

"Whether Hamas thinks that this is their interest, we don't know ... whether Hamas has the best interests of Palestinian civilians in mind, that remains to be seen," he said.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the rocket fire was "very difficult to accept" but declined to say what he would do.

"We won't be deterred from carrying out as wide an action as necessary in Gaza but we're also not racing to do so," he said.

Adding to daily hardships in Gaza, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency UNRWA, which provides food assistance to half of the strip's 1.5 million people, announced on Thursday it had suspended the food distribution until further notice.

"What does that mean, stop the distribution? We could die of hunger," said one woman shocked to see the large blue gate of UNWRA's Gaza City center closed and locked.

"We have a zero stock in our warehouses and therefore we have decided to suspend," said UNWRA's Adnan Abu Hasna. The agency issued a statement blaming continuing cross-border violence and Israel's closure of crossings.

"This truce was an illusion," said Fayeq Al-Helu, a Gaza aid recipient who noted that Israel allowed more goods into the blockaded Gaza Strip before the ceasefire was agreed in June than it has done recently with borders constantly being closed.


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