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Hamas fires a barrage, ends truce

Times Staff Writer

Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip fired a barrage of rockets and mortar rounds into Israel on Tuesday, declaring an end to a five-month cease-fire.

Hamas’ military wing said the early-morning volley came in response to Israeli actions that it claimed in effect had ended the truce. Over the weekend, Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians, most of them fighters, during military operations in the West Bank and an airstrike in Gaza. Hamas leaders had warned of possible retaliation.

But the Israeli military said the barrage Tuesday was meant as cover for a “large-scale operation” by Hamas.

An army spokesman declined to elaborate, but media here reported that officials believed the militant Islamic group was seeking to capture an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid.

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Israeli forces thwarted the attempted operation, the spokesman said, without providing details.

Palestinian militants, including members of Hamas, captured Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit in June by burrowing under the border fence into southern Israel. Shalit, 20, is believed to be held in Gaza.

Tuesday’s bombardment of Israel was the first for which Hamas claimed responsibility since its forces agreed to the cease-fire, though its militants acknowledged shooting at Israeli utility workers last month, wounding one.

Escalation to come?

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The declaration by the group’s armed wing that the truce was over could spell an escalation in violence after months of relative calm.

“The ball is now in the Zionist court,” said a spokesman for the military wing, who is known as Abu Obeida.

A spokesman for the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government quickly called for restoration of the truce. Government spokesman Ghazi Hamad warned, though, that Israel should halt what he called “aggressive behavior.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, of the mainstream Fatah movement, said Hamas’ truce violation was “an exceptional event that will not last,” Reuters news service reported from Rome, where Abbas was on a visit.

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The militants said they fired nearly 100 mortar rounds and Kassam rockets, but Israeli officials disputed that.

A military spokesman said eight mortar shells were fired from southern Gaza and six rockets from the northern part of the strip, though only two of the Kassams landed on Israeli soil.

No reports of injuries

All the projectiles landed in open areas, with no injuries or property damage reported, the army said.

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Israel answered by firing missiles from helicopter gunships into an unpopulated area in southern Gaza from which the mortars were fired.

The exchange came as Israel celebrated Independence Day.

Israel and Hamas in November began a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, though Islamic Jihad militants have continued to fire rockets into southern Israel.

Abbas has sought to extend the cease-fire to the West Bank, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has refused, saying the Palestinians first needed to comply fully with the Gaza truce.

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In recent weeks, rocket fire from Gaza had dropped somewhat amid reported efforts by Abbas to persuade Islamic Jihad to stop the attacks. Israeli security officials have been quoted as saying that Hamas, though observing the cease-fire, has provided rockets to other militant groups.

There have been signs of tension within Hamas in recent months. Some hard-liners opposed a power-sharing deal forged in February with Fatah, which favors peace negotiations with Israel. The Hamas charter calls for Israel’s destruction, though under the terms of the coalition deal, the new government promises to respect past Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

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ellingwood@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah in Gaza City contributed to this report.


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