JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israel dismissed on Friday a Hamas proposal for a six-month Gaza Strip truce during which an embargo on the territory would be lifted, saying the Palestinian Islamists wanted to prepare for more fighting rather than peace.
The Hamas offer, issued on Thursday following talks with Egyptian mediators, departed from previous demands by the group that any ceasefire apply simultaneously in Gaza and the occupied West Bank — the territories where Palestinians want statehood.
In fresh violence, a Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli security guards near the West Bank boundary in an attack claimed by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group. Islamic Jihad also fired four rockets into Israel from Gaza, causing no casualties.
Israel has been reluctant to enter any formal agreement that could shore up the hardline Islamists against their West Bank-based rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as he pursues U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Jewish state.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert signalled flexibility last month by saying military attacks on Gaza would cease if its Hamas rulers stopped cross-border rocket salvoes. “Israel is interested in peace. Unfortunately, Hamas is playing games. Hamas is biding time in order to rearm and regroup,” David Baker, an Olmert spokesman, said on Friday. “Israel will continue to act to protect its citizens,” Baker said, in reference to air strikes and commando raids in Gaza. “There would be no need for Israel’s defensive actions if Hamas would cease and desist from committing terrorist attacks.”
Hamas was unfazed by the spokesman’s comments, saying that an Egyptian mediator, Omar Suleiman, would visit Israel next week to take up the Gaza truce idea with the Olmert government. “We will then get the Israeli response,” Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar told reporters on returning to Gaza from Egypt.
Sources in Olmert’s office and Israel’s Defence Ministry said they had no knowledge of any planned visit by Suleiman next week. In Cairo, Egyptian officials were not immediately available for comment.
Israel pulled troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 but still controls major border crossings and has tightened this cordon since Hamas routed Abbas’s forces there in June.
Some Israeli officials have said the blockade aims both to pressure Hamas to stop rocket fire and, in the long run, to bring about the collapse of its rule over Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians, most of whom depend on foreign aid. But Baker described the closures as a security concern — raising the possibility of a change in Israeli policy should there be a halt to hostilities by Hamas. “The issue of the borders is subject to the prevailing security situation,” he said without elaborating.
Zahar made clear that Hamas would reject such linkage. “If they lift the siege, as it our condition, and reopen the crossings, then okay. Otherwise we have our choices. Our enemy is Israel and our goal is to break the siege,” he said, in what appeared to be a threat of violence. “This calm is not free.”
According to Hamas, should the proposed Gaza truce take hold, Egypt would work to extend it to the West Bank, where violence has persisted, albeit less intensively than in Gaza.
Abbas refuses to talk to Hamas unless it first relinquishes Gaza. He has regularly condemned Israel’s military actions, whose civilian tolls in Gaza have boosted Hamas’s popularity while not significantly stemming the rocket fire. “We hope that this (Hamas truce) proposal is a serious one, and we hope it will be taken seriously by Israel,” Abbas aide Nimer Hammad said. Hamas’s founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel but the group has said it could agree to a long-term truce, perhaps within the framework of a peace deal signed by Abbas.