GAZA/JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Palestinian armed groups in Gaza are observing a 24-hour halt to rocket fire against Israel at the request of Egyptian mediators, a senior official of the ruling Islamist Hamas group said on Monday.
Ayman Taha said the brief ceasefire went into effect on Sunday evening. He said Hamas might consider a longer truce if Israel were to lift an embargo on the impoverished territory, beginning with permission to import an aid shipment from Egypt.
“Hamas and other factions agreed in order to give a chance to the Egyptian mediation and to show that the problem was always on the Israeli side,” Taha told Reuters.
“If a new (truce) offer were made, which met our demands, then we would be willing to study it.”
But an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Taha’s statements were “not true at all”. Israel voiced scepticism.
“A ceasefire cannot be unilateral and Hamas, through its actions, has torpedoed the calm in the south,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The Israeli military said that, as of Sunday evening, Gazan factions had fired at least one rocket and four mortar bombs across the border. An Israeli defence official said no request had been received to open the border to Egyptian aid supplies.
A six-month Egyptian-brokered truce expired on Friday with exchanges of fire across the border, raising fears of a wider conflict that would harm U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and Hamas’s secular rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Word of the 24-hour halt coincided with fresh signals from Israel that it might be ready to consider a new truce with the Islamists, despite calls both within and outside the government over the weekend to end Hamas rule in Gaza with a big offensive.
“The calm is, of course, one alternative, and it is an alternative that can be seriously examined,” Isaac Herzog, a minister in Olmert’s security cabinet, told Israel Radio. “I, like many of my colleagues, am ready to consider continuing the calm, on terms that are comfortable for Israel.”
Israel would likely limit any broader assault on Gaza to air strikes targeting Hamas leaders. But analysts believe that would invite retaliatory Hamas rocket barrages reaching deeper into Israel, in turn triggering a bloody Israeli invasion of Gaza.
Taha said Hamas reprisals could include suicide bombings.
Hamas’s 1988 founding charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state but in the past the faction has offered to suspend hostilities as part of a long-term accord.
During the six-month truce, Hamas accused Israel of reneging on undertakings to open crossings into Gaza, a lifeline of humanitarian and commercial goods for 1.5 million Palestinians.
Israel blamed security threats for the closures, and many were dismayed at the truce’s failure to advance negotiations for the return of an Israeli soldier held in Gaza.
The unwritten ceasefire began unravelling in early November with an Israeli raid to blow up a tunnel. Five militants died.
Since the truce ended, dozens of short-range rockets and mortar bombs have been fired into Israel from Gaza. Most of the rocket fire was claimed by Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group with loose links to Hamas. Over the weekend, an Israeli air strike killed one Palestinian militant.