Gaza militants signal ready to halt fire

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 26, 2011 3:13 PM
Gaza militants signal ready to halt fire

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Gaza militant groups signaled on Saturday they would halt rocket fire at Israel if the Jewish state stopped shootings as well, after a surge in cross-border violence prompted fears of a possible escalation into war.

Hamas spokesman Ismail Rudwan said militant leaders were "committed as long as the occupation (Israel) was committed" to abide by an earlier de facto truce, after a round of talks in Gaza that followed a weeklong surge in attacks.

Israeli raids in Gaza have killed five militants and four civilians this week, a declared response to militants firing more than 70 rockets at the Jewish state, wrecking a house on Saturday, and raising alarm through much of southern Israel.

Gaza militants for their part insist that their rocket and mortar shootings are in response to Israeli air raids in the coastal territory largely sealed off by the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened a lengthy "exchange of blows" if the violence goes on.

Major General Tal Russo, the Israeli commander of troops along the Gaza front, responded to two rocket attacks on Saturday, one of which damaged a home, with a warning that Hamas should "come to their senses" to prevent more violence.

Russo charged that Israel felt Hamas was losing its grip over other Gaza militants. "There is anarchy," he said.

ISRAEL READY, GENERAL SAYS

Asked by reporters whether he thought the situation could escalate into another war, Russo replied: "We are prepared for any possibility, the goal is we won't in the end permit a situation where it is impossible for civilians to live here."

After the Israeli warning, Hamas Islamists who control the Gaza Strip territory convened militant leaders later in the day for a strategy session.

Afterwards, spokesman Rudwan said the militants had agreed that "if the Zionist enemy was interested in calm they must cease their aggression against our Palestinian people."

He also insisted "that resistance was a legitimate right of our people to defend themselves." He added: "we are committed, as long as the occupation (Israel) is committed (to calm)."

Hamas has rejected Western demands to recognize Israel and reject outright acts of violence against the Jewish state. But it has mostly held fire since a devastating 22-day Gaza war in late 2008 in which 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died -- though other militants had kept up sporadic fire at Israel.

But Hamas intensified rocket fire at Israel earlier this month, a move analysts linked to efforts of political rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to heal a four-year rift with the group, which some in Hamas may perceive as a threat.

Abbas held a round of reconciliation talks with Hamas lawmakers on Saturday in the occupied West Bank. He urged the group to resume its calmer stance toward Israel and avoid rocket attacks, the Palestinian news agency, Wafa, reported.

Osama Al-Haj Ahmed of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) said that factions had expressed "support for all efforts to end the division and restore unity" among Palestinians.

(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; editing by Ralph Boulton)