DAMASCUS, (Reuters) – Hamas’s leader in exile was quoted as saying on Sunday it would not renew a six-month-old truce with Israel in Gaza when it expires this week, raising the prospect of increased cross-border fighting. However, officials of the Palestinian Islamist group based in the Gaza Strip took a less definitive line, leaving open the possibility of negotiation before the pact ends on Friday.
Israel said it was ready to prolong the arrangement, which was brokered by Egypt in June but has frayed in recent weeks, following rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli attacks in the enclave.
The statement quoting Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal as saying in Syria that the truce was dead appeared to take his colleagues in Gaza by surprise.
Their leader, Ismail Haniyeh, addressed a mass rally of up to 200,000 people and said Israel had broken its word. But he stopped short of saying the truce would end. “There will be no renewal of the calm after it expires,” Meshaal was quoted in a statement as telling a television channel in an interview to be broadcast later on Sunday.
Hamas officials in Damascus, where Meshaal lives, were not available. But counterparts in Gaza said they were still open to negotiating and that Meshaal and Haniyeh were in full agreement. “The truce will not renewed as long as there is no real and full Israeli commitment,” one Gaza official said in response to the report of Meshaal’s remarks to Al-Quds Television. But he added: “If the occupier’s position changes, it will be studied.”
A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: “Israel has been, and continues to be, ready to abide by the understandings negotiated through Egypt. “But it is clear that we won’t be doing so unilaterally,” the spokesman Mark Regev added, citing what he called Hamas’s “daily grave violations of those understandings”.
The truce, which took effect on June 19, had sharply reduced violence. But the agreement began to unravel early last month after a deadly Israeli incursion prompted Islamist militants to step up firing makeshift rockets into the Jewish state.
Haniyeh told Sunday’s rally that Israel had broken the terms of the truce by not halting violence and by not easing a crippling economic blockade of the coastal territory.
The rally was meant to showcase Hamas’s strength a year and a half after it seized control of the Gaza Strip in a brief, bloody civil war with the rival secular Fatah faction, headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas leaders at the rally marking the group’s 21st anniversary derided Fatah “rats” and predicted Abbas’s downfall.
Israel, which does not talk directly to Hamas, dispatched a senior defence official to Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials about whether to renew the agreement when it expires.
Israel has accused Hamas of undercutting the ceasefire by not halting all rocket fire and by stepping up smuggling of weapons and goods through tunnels under the border with Egypt.
Reminiscent of rallies organised by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which shares many features with Hamas, the Gaza rally included music and sketches, including one mocking an Israeli soldier whom Hamas has been holding captive since 2006.