Hamas called on Sunday for a cease-fire with Israel, a possible indication of the effects of the growing pressure the Islamic group faces after months of isolation in the Gaza Strip.
"Gaza's Hamas government is ready to offer a truce at this time," Mohammed Awad, a senior Hamas official, told a Gaza Web site affiliated with the Islamic group. Awad's office confirmed he had made the statement, which echoed similar calls by Hamas in recent months.
An Israeli government spokesman dismissed Awad's statement as a ploy.
Also Sunday, two Qassam rockets fired by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip struck the western Negev, causing no damage or injuries.
Gaza has been cut off from the rest of the world since Hamas violently seized control over the coastal strip in June. Awad said the truce would only be possible if it "helped to achieve some goals for our people" - likely meaning moves to open sealed border crossings into Israel and Egypt, relieve international economic sanctions and halt Israeli army operations against Palestinian rocket squads.
The Arabic word Awad used, hudna, denotes a temporary cease-fire rather than a permanent peace. Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and EU.
Spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office David Baker accused Hamas of trying to buy time.
"We've seen Hamas and other terror organizations use these calls for a cease-fire as a mere ploy in order to allow them to rearm, regroup and reorganize," Baker said. "Israel will continue to take the necessary steps to defend its citizens and will not sit idly by while these terrorist organizations continue to actively plan and eventually perpetrate terror attacks against us."
Palestinian militants launch rockets almost daily at Israeli towns from Gaza, and Hamas has done nothing to halt the fire. Israel's military raids and airstrikes have failed to halt the projectiles.
In mid-September, the Israeli government declared Gaza a hostile territory in an effort to ratchet up pressure to stop the rockets. The classification set the stage for a possible cutoff of electricity to the impoverished territory of 1.4 million people, but no such cutoff has been carried out.
Also Sunday, scores of Palestinian militants who had been stranded in Egypt since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip were allowed back into the territory, witnesses said, signaling possible new accommodation between Cairo and the Islamist group.
Egypt, the architect of Arab rapprochement with Israel, has straddled a diplomatic fence with Hamas, neither shunning it nor accepting its violent removal of Western-backed Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction from the Gaza Strip.
But in what Hamas sources described as a deal between Hamas and Egypt, around 85 militants crossed into Gaza overnight through Rafah, a terminal on the Egyptian border which had been closed for three months after Abbas' monitors were chased out.
Egypt's Interior Ministry confirmed that they had agreed with Hamas to transport the people across the border. It gave no explanation.
Israel, which opposed the return of some of the Palestinians, said it was unaware of an Egypt-Hamas agreement. Egypt told Israel that about 28 Palestinians, including senior Hamas figures, broke through the Egypt-Gaza fence, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman said.
But the crossing appeared to be organized with Egyptian cooperation, witnesses said.
The Palestinians were transported to the Egyptian side of the border in Egyptian buses, allowed across by Hamas security and then met at a Hamas security in included a prominent Hamas lawmaker, Mushir al-Masri, and Hamas loyalists sent for training in Muslim countries before the militant Islamic group's Gaza takeover, witnesses said. They did not speak to journalists at the scene.
During the crossing, Hamas security officials tried to keep the operation a secret, confiscating film from photographers and cameramen alerted to the scene.
The militants, whom witnesses and Hamas sources said included senior Hamas figures, had refused to avail themselves of an alternative return route to Gaza that runs through neighboring Israel for fear of being arrested by the Israelis.
Hamas sources said that the Popular Resistance Committees, a Gaza-based militant group, took part in talks with Egypt on temporarily reopening Rafah.
Palestinian diplomats in Cairo estimate that 2,000 Palestinians remain stranded in Egypt, including university students, people who had sought medical care abroad, and people who had been visiting relatives at the time of the Gaza takeover.
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