Agence France Presse (AFP)
December 23, 2008 - 1:00am§ion=middleeast&xfile=...

GAZA CITY - A tense calm reigned over the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Tuesday as the Palestinian Islamist group said it might be willing to agree to a new truce with Israel.

Gaza militants fired one rocket which hit without causing damage or injury, and Israel did not launch any raids on the territory after Hamas announced on Monday that it would not launch rockets or fire mortars for 24 hours.

Senior Hamas leader Mahmud Zahar told AFP that the movement could consider extending the temporary lull and agreeing to a new long-term truce, following the expiry on Friday of a six-month ceasefire.

Hamas is ready to renew the truce ‘if Israel respects the conditions of a ceasefire,’ he said.

These include lifting the blockade of the Palestinian enclave and stopping military raids on the besieged territory, stronghold of the Islamist movement considered a terror group by Israel and the West.

‘We demand that Israel respect truce conditions... in particular that it stop all form of aggression and open the border crossings,’ said Zahar, one of Hamas’s most hardline leaders.

His comments came two days before Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was due in Cairo for talks on the situation in Gaza with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt mediated the six-month ceasefire that has just ended. Largely violated by both sides for more than a month, its expiry on Friday ushered in two days of escalating violence and bellicose rhetoric.

As the military carried out air strikes and Palestinian militants fired rockets, Israel threatened to launch a major offensive on Gaza and Hamas warned that it would respond by resuming suicide attacks inside the Jewish state.

The overcrowded and aid-dependent land of some 1.5 million people has been subject to Israeli blockade and repeated raids since 2006, when Hamas won parliamentary elections and later participated in a deadly cross-border raid in which militants seized an Israeli soldier, who is still being held.

Israel cut off much movement of goods and people in and out of the territory in June 2007 after Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, seized Gaza by ousting forces loyal to secular Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Aid groups have repeatedly appealed to Israel to lift its restrictions—which at times have seen Gaza sealed off completely—to avoid a humanitarian crisis in the overcrowded territory where most of the population depends on foreign aid.

Coming less than two months before snap elections set for February, the latest developments around Gaza pose a dilemma for the Israeli leadership.

In public comments, officials have called for major military action in response to continuing rocket fire and have vowed to topple Hamas.

But in private there is little enthusiasm for such an offensive, for fear that voters will punish politicians at the ballot box if a military operation fails to score a decisive victory against Hamas, observers say.

Speaking in Cairo, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said that a truce in Gaza was essential to advance the staggering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

‘Nothing will be possible if the truce is not continued, if there is no real truce,’ he said.


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