Israelis cool to truce hint by Hamas

Gaza leader offered terms, reporter says

December 20, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

JERUSALEM -- Officials in the Israeli prime minister's office reacted coolly yesterday to an indirect approach by the Hamas leader in Gaza offering talks for a truce.

The offer was relayed through an Israeli reporter, Sleman al-Shafhe, of Israel's Channel 2 television station. On the main news broadcast Tuesday night, Shafhe said that Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, had called him earlier in the day and sought to convey a message to the Israelis.

According to Shafhe, Haniyeh said that he had the will and the ability to stop the rocket fire directed at Israel from Gaza, on condition that Israel stops the killing of Palestinians there and lifts the economic blockade of the strip.

Yesterday, Shafhe said in an interview that Haniyeh had said that he would have "no problem" negotiating with the Israeli government on these issues, with an eye to reaching a mutual truce.

Haniyeh's call followed a series of Israeli military strikes that killed at least 10 Palestinian militants in Gaza between Monday night and Tuesday morning in a concerted effort to suppress the rocket fire. Eight of those killed were from Islamic Jihad, which has been responsible for most of the recent rocket fire, and included a top commander of the group's military wing who had been targeted by Israel.

Two others were from Hamas, which has mainly limited itself to firing shorter-range mortar shells at the border crossings and at Israeli border communities in recent months. Hamas fired scores of rockets in May, when the last shaky cease-fire with Israel broke down.

Hamas, the Islamic group that was at the vanguard of a deadly suicide bombing campaign in Israel in recent years, does not recognize Israel and calls in its charter for Israel's destruction. Israel, like the United States and the European Union, classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization and refuses to deal with it.

Hamas seized power in Gaza in June, routing rival Fatah forces. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and Fatah chief, then sacked the unity government that Haniyeh had led.

Israel has since tightened its relations with Abbas and the new caretaker government he appointed in the West Bank, and has severely restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of the Gaza Strip. Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in 2006, does not recognize the West Bank-based government and rules Gaza alone.

In response to Haniyeh's overture, Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said: "Our partner for dialogue is the legitimate Palestinian government," meaning the one appointed by Abbas.

But Shaul Mofaz, Israel's transport minister and a member of Kadima, Olmert's party, did not rule out the idea of reaching an understanding with Hamas through a third party. "Mediation is something we can think about," said Mofaz, a former defense minister. He added, though, that Israel would not stop its strikes against Hamas and other militant groups "for even one hour" as long as the rocket fire continued.

Haniyeh's conversation with Shafhe was not recorded, but a Hamas government spokesman in Gaza, Taher Nunu, confirmed that it had taken place and that Haniyeh had spoken about a truce. A spokesman for Islamic Jihad's military wing said Tuesday night that he was annoyed by Haniyeh's call for a truce.

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