Hamas declares end to ceasefire with Israel in Gaza

GAZA (Reuters) - Hamas on Thursday declared an end to a six-month-old Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Israel in the Gaza Strip, raising the prospect of an escalation in cross-border fighting.

“The calm is over,” Hamas official Ayman Taha said in an announcement after concluding talks with Palestinian factions in the coastal enclave controlled by the Islamist group.

He said the ceasefire, which Hamas says was scheduled to expire on December 19, would not be renewed “because the enemy did not abide by its obligations” to ease a crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip and halt all attacks.

Hamas stopped short of threatening an immediate escalation against Israel, which had hoped to extend the truce and appears wary of a confrontation that could cause heavy casualties on both sides.

The European Union, in a statement, called for an “immediate cessation” of both rocket fire and Israeli incursions.

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Tensions along the Israeli-Gaza border have been escalating since early last month when a deadly Israeli army raid triggered a wave of rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.

On Wednesday, at least 20 rockets hit Israel, injuring two. The army responded with air strikes which killed a Palestinian.

On Thursday, 14 more rockets struck Israeli soil, causing damage but no injuries.

Israel has insisted the ceasefire was in the Palestinians’ interest and ought to continue indefinitely.

A member of Hamas security forces inspects a damaged house following an Israeli airstrike, in the town of Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip December 18, 2008. An Israeli missile aimed at militants in the north of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip killed one Palestinian and slightly wounded another, medical workers said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

Some Gaza residents hoped the deal would survive.

“I hope the truce can be renewed so we can continue to live in our houses,” said Umm Mohammed, a mother of 10 whose house east of Gaza city lies close to the fortified border fence with Israel, from where tanks have mounted past incursions.

“If there was a raid I would have to leave the house with my children because raids can take days sometimes,” she said.

But in the Israeli border town of Sderot, a common target for Gaza rockets, people scoffed at the notion of “calm.”

“What calm? Did we have any calm so far? If this is calm then what will we have when it escalates?,” said Yossi Timsit on Thursday, as sirens sounded and fellow residents ran for cover.

The people of Sderot were being “abandoned” to constant fear and all-day alerts, he said, calling on the Israeli army to stop the rockets one way or another.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the rocket fire was “very difficult to accept” but declined to say what he would do.

“We won’t be deterred from carrying out as wide an action as necessary in Gaza but we’re also not racing to do so,” he said.

Adding to daily hardships in Gaza, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency UNRWA, which provides food assistance to half of the strip’s 1.5 million people, announced on Thursday it had suspended the food distribution until further notice.

Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem and Yehuda Peretz in Sderot; Writing by Douglas Hamilton and Adam Entous; Editing by Charles Dick