GAZA, (Reuters) – Hamas Islamic militants will only renew a truce that expires at the end of the year if Israel halts attacks and frees Palestinian prisoners, a leader of the most powerful Palestinian faction said on Thursday.
The comments from Mahmoud al-Zahar followed the worst violence since Israel and the Palestinians sealed a truce nine months ago and militants agreed to follow a "period of calm".
"Calm was conditional on the enemy stopping its aggression and freeing the detainees, all of the detainees … Nothing of that was achieved," Zahar told Reuters after prayers in Gaza for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
"We are not going to give calm without a price. The price is to release our people from Israeli detention and to stop the Israeli aggression."
Egypt is expected to organise talks among the armed groups in coming weeks to try to get them to renew the truce so as to promote talks with Israel on Palestinian statehood following its withdrawal from the occupied Gaza Strip in September.
Prisoner releases have long been a key militant demand. Israel has released 900 Palestinians since the start of the ceasefire, but still has over 8,000 detainees, including hundreds arrested in recent raids on the occupied West Bank.
The truce has neared total collapse during the latest bloodshed, though Hamas has been less involved in fighting than the kindred Islamic Jihad group that is also determined to destroy Israel.
Israeli troops have killed 16 Palestinians, most of them militants, in airstrikes and raids that followed rocket fire and a suicide bombing which left five Israelis dead. Palestinian gunmen killed a soldier in the West Bank on Wednesday.
Hamas said it "reserved the right" to retaliate for the death of a commander in an airstrike that targeted a militant from another faction, but would wait until after the holiday.
Hamas has a greater interest than smaller groups in preserving a truce that has proved popular with Palestinians because it is planning to contest parliamentary elections for the first time in late January.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose dominant Fatah movement is expected to lose ground to Hamas in the vote, hopes the election will bring Hamas into the political mainstream. But Zahar rejected any suggestion it would disarm afterwards.
"The weapons that were smeared by our blood will only be handed over to our sons," he said. Israel insists on disarmament, which Palestinians are meant to start under a U.S.-backed peace "road map", as a condition for talks on statehood. But Abbas fears it could lead to civil war.
Israel has not met its own road map obligation for a freeze on West Bank settlement building.