GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israel crossings with the Gaza Strip were closed Friday in retaliation for Palestinian rocket fire that has violated a rocky truce.
Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers responded by suspending talks on freeing a long-held Israeli soldier. Under the terms of the June 19 cease-fire, Palestinian militants were to have halted all assaults on southern Israel and Israel was to have eased its bruising blockade of the impoverished Gaza Strip. In the final stage of the six-month truce, efforts were to be intensified to win freedom for Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit and to open Gaza’s chief gateway, the Rafah crossing with Egypt. But since the truce took hold, 11 rockets and mortars have been fired toward Israel, including a rocket attack on Thursday, the military said. As a result, Israel’s crossings have been closed for seven days since June 19.
Military spokesman Peter Lerner said the latest closure was provoked by the attack Thursday. Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of Hamas-ruled Gaza, accused Israel of not living up to its part of the truce.
“We still say that maintaining the calm is a national interest, but the Israelis must commit to lifting the siege and opening the crossings,” Haniyeh told reporters after Muslim prayers at a Gaza mosque. And Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said talks on freeing Schalit were frozen. “The Hamas movement has decided to suspend the talks on the captured soldier Gilad Schalit because Israel has violated the calm agreement by closing the crossings,” Abu Zuhri told Associated Press Television News.
Hamas-affiliated militants captured Schalit two years ago in a cross-border raid and have demanded that Israel release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for his freedom. Israel has been reluctant to free many of the prisoners on Hamas’ list because they were involved in deadly attacks on Israel.
The prisoner exchange talks, like the truce, have been mediated by Egypt because Israel has no ties with Hamas, which rejects the Jewish state’s existence. “The agreement for calm in the south stipulated that there would be a cessation of rocket fire on Israel, as well as expedited progress on the Gilad Schalit issue,” an Israeli government official said in response to Hamas’ decision to suspend talks on freeing Schalit. “The rocket fire has not ended, and we hope that there will be progress on Gilad Schalit.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss government policy.
Israel imposed, then progressively tightened economic sanctions on Gaza’s 1.4 million people after Hamas violently wrested control of the territory a year ago. The sanctions were meant to pressure Hamas to put an end to the rocket fire, but have hurt ordinary Palestinians who now receive only food and other humanitarian supplies through crossings with Israel. Severe shortages in everything from gasoline to cement to shoes have been reported.
Much rests on the truce because Israel has warned it might launch a large-scale operation in Gaza if the rocket attacks do not cease. An invasion would likely bring large numbers of casualties and prompt the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to call off peace talks with Israel.