Truce with Israel is over, Hamas says

A tenuous, Egyptian-mediated ceasefire between Israel and Hamas has expired as scheduled a day after the Islamist faction, which controls the Gaza Strip, announced that it would not renew the agreement.


AFP - Hamas, the Islamist movement controlling Gaza, said Friday it has ended its six-month truce with Israel and will respond to any attack on the impoverished and besieged Palestinian territory.

The armed wing of the Islamist movement Hamas, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said Friday shortly after 6:00 am (0400 GMT) that the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire with Israel was officially over.

"The ceasefire is over and there won't be a renewal because the Zionist enemy has not respected its conditions," the group said on its website, adding Israel bore responsibility for the consequences.

Both Hamas and Israel have said they would respond when attacked, but neither has yet said it will go on the offensive.

"We at Hamas have the right to respond to any Zionist aggression against the Palestinian people. It is a national duty," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said Thursday, adding that Hamas would act "according to the situation on the ground."

Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel's interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the cabinet would discuss the situation on Sunday.

"We were ready to respect the arrangements concluded with Egypt," he told AFP on Thursday.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has indicated that Israel would respond if attacked, saying: "When the situation requires us to, we will act."

He raised the spectre of Israeli military intervention, but also made it clear he saw no urgency.

"We are not afraid of launching a large-scale military operation in Gaza but there is no need to rush into it," he told journalists.

Israeli forces conducted several air strikes and killed one Palestinian while Gaza militants fired a barrage of rockets on Wednesday and again on Thursday.

Israeli warplanes on Thursday knocked out two rocket launchers, including one that was set to fire, the military said.

Israel and Hamas have accused each other of violating the truce that was negotiated through Egyptian intermediaries because the Jewish state regards the Islamists as a terrorist organisation.

The Israeli government blames Hamas for not stopping attacks often carried out by smaller Palestinian factions, while the Islamists claim Israel also broke the truce by failing to lift its blockade of the impoverished territory.

Israel responded to a surge of violence in early November by tightening sanctions and closing crossing points with Gaza, halting deliveries of humanitarian aid and other supplies.

The UN Works and Relief Agency said on Thursday shortages caused by the closures have forced it to suspend distribution of food assistance to about half of Gaza's 1.5-million-strong population.

UN Middle East envoy Robert Serry warned that "a major escalation of violence would have grave consequences for the protection of civilians in Israel and Gaza, the welfare of the Gazan civilian population, and the sustainability of political efforts."

"A priority must be to ensure calm in and around Gaza and urgently improve humanitarian conditions," he said in a UN Security Council brief delivered in New York.

Rockets have rained down on southern Israel almost daily since November 4, and Israeli forces have killed 18 Palestinians in Gaza, nearly all of them militants, since then.

On Wednesday two people were wounded when a rocket exploded near a large supermarket in Sderot, an Israeli city just a few kilometres (miles) from Gaza.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas will discuss the situation in Gaza when he meets US President George W. Bush in Washington on Friday.

Abbas has called for the truce to continue, but his authority has been limited to the occupied West Bank since Hamas ousted his forces and seized control of the coastal enclave in June 2007.

The situation in Gaza and Palestinian factional divisions have further hobbled slow-moving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks revived under US auspices in November 2007 after a seven-year hiatus.

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