GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip, (AP) – Hamas militants fired a barrage of rockets and mortar shells toward Israel on Tuesday and said they considered a five-month truce with Israel to have come to an end.
Tuesday’s attack, which came on Israel’s 59th independence day, did not cause damage or injury. However, it marked the first time Hamas openly acknowledged firing shells toward Israel since it agreed to a cease-fire along the Gaza-Israel border in November.
A spokesman for Hamas’ armed wing said the group considered the truce to have come to an end. “The cease-fire has been over for a long time, and Israel is responsible for that,” the spokesman, Abu Obeida, told the Voice of Palestine radio station.
In recent months, Hamas had largely held back on attacks, particularly during its negotiations on a power-sharing agreement with the Fatah movement of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Now the Muslim militant group appeared to be spoiling for a fight, especially in the absence of any progress toward the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
Shalit was captured by Hamas-allied militants in Gaza last June.
“This is a message to the Zionist enemy that our strikes will continue,” Abu Obeida said of the rocket fire. “We are ready to kidnap more and more, and kill more and more of your soldiers.”
Shalit’s kidnappers demand the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including veterans and those involved in killing or wounding Israelis.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday that freeing soldiers was deeply important to the government, but that it would not repeat “mistakes made in the past” by releasing violent prisoners who then carried out more attacks against Israelis. But Olmert said there would be “no escape in the end from making a difficult decision” on trading prisoners for the captured Israeli troops.
Hamas militants claimed Tuesday they launched 40 rockets and 70 mortar shells. However, the Israeli military said it could only confirm five rockets and eight mortars. One of the rockets fell in Israel, north of the Gaza Strip, the army said.
The rockets come after nine Palestinians were killed in fighting with Israel over the weekend. Most of the dead were militants, but Palestinians said at least two civilians, including a 17-year-old girl, were killed.
The upswing in violence drew calls from Palestinian moderates for Abbas to cut off contacts with Olmert. Hamas, the senior partner in a coalition with Fatah, called for renewed attacks against Israelis.