December 23, 2008 / 1:48 PM / 10 years ago

Hamas offers to study fresh Gaza truce with Israel

GAZA (Reuters) - Hamas would consider renewing a lapsed truce with Israel in the Gaza Strip, but wants guarantees the Jewish state will halt incursions and keep border crossings open for supplies of aid and fuel, a spokesman said on Tuesday.

Islamic Jihad militants take part in a training drill near Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip December 23, 2008. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Gaza’s Islamist leaders had initially ruled out extending the six-month-old truce, which they declared dead last Friday. Tensions rose as Palestinians stepped up cross-border rocket fire, but since late Sunday have scaled back the salvoes.

On Tuesday evening, the Israeli military said its troops crossed into northern Gaza to shoot three Palestinian gunmen as they tried to plant a bomb. Israeli media said the three died, but Palestinian sources had no immediate word on the incident.

Earlier, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Hamas and other factions were prepared to study offers to renew the accord. Signaling a breakthrough could be in the works, Israel agreed to open Gazan border crossings for key imports on Wednesday.

Israel’s closure of the crossings has increased hardships for the coastal enclave’s 1.5 million people, forcing the main power plant to shut down and international aid agencies to temporarily halt food distribution.

Hamas’s apparent shift came two days before scheduled talks in Cairo between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a top candidate to succeed Ehud Olmert as prime minister in a February 10 election.

It also followed an agreement between Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group to temporarily curb rocket attacks at the urging of the Egyptians. In the last 48 hours, the Israeli army said at least nine rockets and two mortar shells were fired at Israel, a reduction from the dozens launched over the weekend.

CROSSINGS TO OPEN

Egyptian officials provided few details about what might be discussed on Thursday. “The Egyptians want to raise the whole question of the truce and to prevent Israel from invading Gaza,” said one Israeli official.

Raed Fattouh, coordinator of supplies for Gaza, told Reuters that Israel informed him it would open two crossings on Wednesday to allow in humanitarian aid and commercial goods.

An Israeli military liaison, Peter Lerner, confirmed the plan and said a third border depot would also open so that household and industrial fuels could be brought into Gaza.

Aides to Olmert have said Israel was prepared to meet its commitments under the ceasefire, but only if Hamas imposed the ceasefire on all of Gaza’s militant factions.

And it was unclear to what degree Israel might guarantee opening the border since that could limit its options in future.

Israel blamed Hamas for the truce’s collapse, saying the crossings were frequently closed in response to rocket attacks — which usually cause little damage — and other threats.

Though Israeli defense officials had threatened to start targeting a wider range of Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, Olmert and Defence Minister Ehud Barak have been cool to calls from some hawks for a large-scale ground offensive.

Such an operation could result in heavy casualties on both sides, fuel a major humanitarian crisis and spark an international outcry against Israel.

Likewise, Barhoum, while holding out hope of renewing the truce, derided Israeli talk of an extension as misinformation aimed at “throwing dust in our eyes.” He said: “The region is heading toward an escalation, not calm.”

Livni has vowed to make toppling Hamas a top priority for her government if she gets elected on February 10. Her main rival for the premiership, right-wing Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, has made a similar pledge.

Writing by Adam Entous; Editing by Giles Elgood

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