Most Hamas leaders are interested in maintaining a cease-fire with Israel in the short term, according to a former deputy chief of the Shin Bet security service.

In an article regarding the escalation of violence that erupted more than a week ago between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip, published on a U.S. Web site, the official wrote that continuing the truce would allow Hamas to achieve its other political goals.

"Although certain Hamas officials (particularly in the military wing) want to abandon the ceasefire altogether, most of its leaders will most likely continue to emphasize the truce's benefits and maintain the agreement for the near term, since it allows Hamas to make progress on other goals," wrote the official.

"The organization is concerned that a large-scale incursion by the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] would prevent it from dealing with its complex set of challenges and also endanger its main achievement, the complete control of the Gaza Strip," the official wrote. "The truce promotes Hamas's interests by buying time to advance the movement's short- and long-term goals."

Meanwhile, violence between Israel and Gaza continued on Friday as Hamas militants fired over a

  • dozen rockets at the western Negev, while the Israel Air Force responded by shooting missiles at a rocket-launching pad in the northern Strip.

    Gaza Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar warned Israel in a Friday sermon, "If you want to leave the truce, we are ready. And if you want to continue it, then abide by it."

    Government spokesman Mark Regev said Friday that while Israel was committed to maintaining a truce, it seemed Hamas had no interest in a return to calm.

    "Israel wants the calm that previously existed to once again prevail. It appears that Hamas' policy is exactly the opposite, and they want to see a flare-up of the violence," he said.

    Israel on Thursday delivered a message to Hamas via Egyptian intermediaries indicating that while it has no interest in escalating tensions along the Gaza border, it will retaliate against any attempt by the Islamist group to carry out attacks.

    Hamas for its part insists it is Israel that is guilty of perpetrating provocations. Nonetheless, a spokesman for the Hamas government in Gaza told a Haaretz reporter that the Islamist group is also interested in maintaining the truce, "but not from a position of weakness and if the provocation [by Israel] will be bigger than expected, the Palestinian response will not be a simple one."

    A senior diplomatic official in Jerusalem said Thursday that aides to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak held consultations with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman during which they sought to make clear that "Israel will not be the first to breach the lull, but as long as Hamas and the other organizations undertake actions that violate the calm, we will not hesitate to act."

    The source added that the situation on the Gaza front is highly volatile due to the numerous intelligence tips pointing to Hamas' intentions to perpetrate attacks. "They are looking for any way to carry out terrorist attacks," the source said. "And if these attempts continue we won't be able to hold back."

    According to information obtained by Israel, Hamas' goal is to carry out an attack that would result in a large number of casualties as well as abducting IDF soldiers either by way of digging a tunnel or an infiltration of a terror cell into Israel proper.

    The Hamas official, Taher a-Nunu, pointed out that Israel has not eased the restriction on movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip since the ceasefire went into effect five months ago. "A continuation of the siege during the lull is unacceptable to us," he said.

    According to the Hamas government in Gaza, there are three motivating factors behind Israel's escalation of violence, all of which are related to one another. Barak is intent on exacerbating tensions as he gears up for general elections in the hope that he can burnish his security credentials against his opponents. At the same time, Barak would like to extend the truce (which is set to expire on December 16) but "wants to impose the continuation of the truce in blood" as a way to weaken the Palestinian side.

    Hamas officials say the escalation - and the subsequent renewal of the truce following the latest round of bloodshed - will ratchet up the pressure on Hamas to come to the negotiating table with the Fatah leadership in Ramallah as part of the ongoing reconciliation efforts.

    Ultimately, Hamas officials fear, "the Hamas government will disband voluntarily, and a national consensus government that does not include Hamas and other factions will take its place. With such a government, the weak Mahmoud Abbas will be able to make political concessions in which Israel is interested."

    A-Nunu was skeptical of Israel's claim that last week's operation that brought an end to the truce was aimed at thwarting a terrorist attack in the making. The IDF destroyed a tunnel it claims was being used as a conduit for militants to abduct soldiers.

    "Even if there was a tunnel, it was not inside Israel," he said. When asked of Israel's accusation that Hamas is using the lull in fighting to boost its weapons arsenal, a-Nunu asked: "Doesn't Israel arm itself and augment its military might during the lull?"