GAZA (Reuters) - Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers signaled Friday that they wanted to defuse tension with Israel that has surged over the past week and they reiterated their desire for a mutual ceasefire.
Israel and Hamas fought a devastating three-week war in the Gaza Strip two years ago and there have been frequent exchanges of fire across the tense border since, with incidents recently spiking.
Palestinian militants fired 26 rockets and mortars into Israel this week, including one that exploded near a kindergarten. An Israeli air strike wiped out a five-man rocket squad and a Palestinian shepherd was shot dead near the border.
In front of a crowd of supporters in southern Gaza after Friday prayers, senior leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar said Hamas would be committed to a ceasefire if Israel abided by it.
Zahar said Hamas and other factions were committed to an agreement they had reached last year to stop rocket firing into Israel, although smaller groups continued to launch attacks. Earlier Friday a rocket fired from Gaza landed in Israel.
“We are committed to self-restraint as long as there is no oppression and no aggression,” said Zahar.
Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, has said in the past it would agree to a long-term truce.
A spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Zahar’s declared intentions will be tested by the reality on the ground. “Hamas has escalated the situation, it can now be de-escalated by simply stopping the rocket fire,” said Yigal Palmor.
The United Nations said Thursday both sides had indicated they wanted to reduce tension around the eastern Mediterranean coastal enclave.
Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, editing by Mark Heinrich