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Hamas signals thaw; Israel sets up Gaza strike

Gaza's ruling Hamas on Monday ordered militants to hold their fire for 24 hours and said a truce with Israel could be restored, but Israel signaled it was preparing for a possible offensive.
Israeli soldiers sit atop tanks at a position near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip on Monday.Sebastian Scheiner / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gaza's ruling Hamas on Monday ordered militants to hold their fire for 24 hours and said a truce with Israel could be restored, but as rockets continued to fall, Israel signaled it was preparing for a possible offensive.

In an interview with Israel's Channel 10 TV, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar indicated that Hamas is interested in renewing the truce with Israel.

"The price is the lives of the Palestinian people," he said, demanding regular food and electricity supplies from Israel along with stopping Israeli military actions in the West Bank as well as Gaza.

Israel did not agree to halt operations in the West Bank under the truce that expired Friday and Israeli officials refused to comment on the interview.

Hamas said militants were told Monday to halt rocket fire for 24 hours to see if Israel would allow vital supplies to be shipped into Gaza. Other factions, including Islamic Jihad, said they received no such order.

In contrast, Hamas official Ayman Taha threatened a renewal of suicide bombings in Israel.

The Israeli military said three rockets were fired by nightfall, far fewer than previous days, but military spokesman Maj. Peter Lerner said the cargo crossings remained sealed on Monday.

Diplomatic efforts continue
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to Cairo on Thursday to discuss a new truce, Livni's office said in a statement. Officials in her office said Livni was prepared to listen, but she would also complain about the hundreds of rockets and mortars that have been fired at Israel over the past month.

Israel's dispatched diplomats to win international sympathy for the plight of Israelis within range of militant fire — a reflection of the fact that most world attention has been focused on hardships in Gaza. Since Hamas overran Gaza last year, Israel has severely limited shipments through its crossings with Gaza, and shortages are widespread. Israel accuses Hamas of manipulating supplies for propaganda purposes.

Israel's new diplomatic offensive sends an indirect message to Hamas that Israel is ready to act. Analysts believe both sides want to renew the truce that held for five months before unraveling in November and ending formally on Friday.

Explaining the diplomatic push, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said, "People abroad perhaps do not understand the real distress of Israelis in the south who live with the rocket threat. Then you wake up in the morning with an Israeli response, and you don't understand where it came from."

Rockets have reached Ashkelon, an urban center of 120,000 people 10 miles north of Gaza, and Israeli security believes Hamas has rockets that can reach larger cities farther away. Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin told Israel's Cabinet on Sunday that the Mediterranean port of Ashdod and the southern city of Beersheba could be targeted.

Incursion was OK'd last week
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided last week to approve a Gaza operation but left the timing vague. Past incursions have not stopped the rocket fire.

"There is real concern in the military and the defense ministry about the price, and they are trying everything not to go into Gaza," said Reuven Pedatzur, a military analyst at Tel Aviv University.

But if a rockets kills a large number of Israelis, he said, "they won't have a choice."

Another factor influencing Israeli decision-making is a general election, set for Feb. 10. Barak and Livni are battling for the same centrist voters. The electoral effect of a costly ground offensive would be hard to assess, but failure to act might play into the hand of their main opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, who favors stern and swift action in Gaza.