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Egypt says Israel-Gaza truce unlikely with escalation

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit urged Israel and Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers to hold their fire to enable Cairo to try to broker a new truce between them.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (R) shakes hands with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni during their meeting in Cairo December 25, 2008. Livni travelled to Cairo on Thursday to discuss growing violence along the Israel-Gaza border and the prospects of renewing an Egyptian-brokered truce that ended last week. REUTERS/Amr Dalsh

But Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, on a visit to Cairo for talks on the escalating violence with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said Hamas must pay for rocket attacks against the Jewish state.

“Egypt will not stop efforts (to broker a truce) as long as the parties want this, but I cannot imagine that we can convince the two sides to go back to the calm as long as there is this escalation,” Aboul Gheit told reporters at a news conference with Livni.

“What we are asking them both is to restrain themselves, and then we see how to come back to that period of quiet,” he added.

Prospects of restoring the Egyptian-brokered truce dimmed this week after Israeli soldiers killed three Hamas gunmen they said were trying to plant explosives along the Gaza-Israeli border. Militants responded with rocket fire at southern Israel.

Livni, leader of Israel’s ruling Kadima party who hopes to succeed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after the next elections, described the latest escalation as “unbearable.”

“Hamas needs to understand that our aspiration to live in peace does not mean that Israel will take this kind of situation any longer. Enough is enough,” Livni told reporters in Cairo.

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In Jerusalem, Olmert urged Gaza’s Palestinians to reject the Hamas government and threatened a harsher reply to rocket fire.

“I will not hesitate to use Israel’s might to strike Hamas and (Islamic) Jihad,” Olmert said in an interview with Al Arabiya television, according to his office.

Under the six-month ceasefire that ended in violence last week, Hamas agreed to halt rocket fire in return for Israel easing a blockade that was tightened after the Islamist group seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007.

Livni said on Wednesday that Israel will “change the reality” of the situation in the Gaza Strip.

Israel and Hamas have both signaled interest in extending the truce. Emad Gad, an Egyptian political analyst, said the violence was nothing more than “mutual finger biting” to agree better terms for the truce.

“Hamas wants the siege on Gaza to be lifted and the border crossings opened. This was not achieved last time,” he said. “Israel probably wants the terms to remain unchanged.”

Gad said Israel was likely to launch some air strikes and minor raids into Gaza but did not see a full-scale invasion.

Israel and Hamas have traded blame over the ceasefire’s collapse in early November. Hamas said Israel had failed to ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip by allowing in more food and medical supplies to alleviate severe shortages.

Editing by Sami Aboudi