Hamas declares end to cease-fire

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip fired a barrage of rockets and mortar shells into Israel yesterday, declaring an end to a five-month cease-fire.

Hamas' military wing said the early morning volley was fired in response to Israeli actions that ended the truce. Israeli forces killed at least eight Palestinians during weekend military operations in the West Bank and an airstrike in Gaza, and Hamas leaders had warned of possible retaliation.

But the Israeli military said yesterday's barrage was meant as cover for a "large-scale operation" by Hamas. An army spokesman declined to elaborate, but Israeli news media reported that officials believed Hamas was trying to capture one of its soldiers in a cross-border raid.

Israeli forces thwarted the operation, the spokesman said, without providing details.

Palestinian militants captured Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit last June by burrowing under the border fence into southern Israel. Shalit, 20, is believed to be held in Gaza.

The bombardment yesterday was not the first by Hamas forces since the militant group agreed to the cease-fire with Israel five months ago. But the declaration by the group's armed wing said it considered the cease-fire to be over, signaling a possible escalation in violence after months of relative calm.

"The ball is now in the Zionist court," said a spokesman for Hamas' military wing, who is known as Abu Obeida.

Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for the Hamas-led Palestinian government, quickly called for restoration of the truce but warned that Israel should halt "aggressive behavior."

The militants said yesterday that they had fired nearly 100 mortar shells and Kassam rockets, but Israeli officials disputed that. An Israeli military spokesman said eight mortar shells were fired from southern Gaza and six Kassam rockets from the northern part of the strip, but only two landed on Israeli soil.

The projectiles landed in open areas, with no injuries or property damage reported, the army said. Israel answered by firing missiles from helicopter gunships into an unpopulated area in southern Gaza from which the mortars were fired.

The exchange came as Israel celebrated its Independence Day.

Israel and Hamas agreed in November to a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, though militants from Islamic Jihad have continued to fire rockets into southern Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has sought to extend the cease-fire to the West Bank, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has refused, saying the Palestinians first had to comply fully with the Gaza truce.

In recent weeks, rocket fire from Gaza dropped amid reported efforts by Abbas to persuade Islamic Jihad to stop.

Israeli security officials have been quoted as saying that Hamas, though observing the cease-fire, has provided rockets to other groups.

There have been signs of tension within Hamas in recent months. Some hard-liners opposed a power-sharing deal forged in February with Abbas' Fatah movement, which favors peace negotiations with Israel. The Hamas charter calls for Israel's destruction, though under the terms of the coalition deal, the new government promises to respect past Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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