Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak - Tal Cohen
Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin, left, and Ehud Barak addressing the media, April 10, 2011. Photo by Tal Cohen
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The latest round of Israel-Gaza violence - which included a direct hit on an Israeli school bus, intense Palestinian rocket and mortar fire, and IDF strikes that left 19 Hamas militants and two civilians dead over the weekend - appears to have come to a close, defense officials said on Sunday.

The Israel Defense Forces refrained from responding to a rocket fired on Sunday toward Ashkelon and to the 10 mortar shells that hit open areas in southern Israel, even as a ministerial committee directed the army "to continue to act against those responsible for terrorism."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated on Sunday that restraint would be the watchword.

"We intend to restore the quiet," he said. "If that is also Hamas' intention, quiet will be restored. If Hamas intensifies its attacks ... our response will be much more severe."

Hamas' deputy defense minister, Ghazi Hamad, made a rare direct appeal to Israel Sunday, calling for a halt to the fighting during an Israel Radio interview he gave in Hebrew.

"We are interested in calm, but we want the Israeli army to stop its attacks," he said.

That statement was reinforced by indirect messages Hamas has been sending Israel since Saturday to announce it is seeking a cease-fire, a senior Israeli official said.

The official added that Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh relayed the message through four separate intermediaries: UN Middle East envoy Robert Serry, Egyptian intelligence officials, and two European countries that have ties with Hamas - thought to be Norway and Sweden.

Beirut-based Hamas official Osama Hamdan, who is responsible for the group's foreign relations, confirmed in an interview with Hamas newspaper Falastin published yesterday that it has been in contact with European countries in an effort to pressure Israel to stop attacking Gaza.

Israel refused to negotiate, instead sending a terse reply. According to the Israeli official: "We are only attacking Gaza in response to the rocket fire. If the fire stops, our attacks will also stop."

Although the Palestinian attacks continued yesterday, the level of mortar fire dropped sharply from the previous two days, when some 120 rockets and missiles hit Israel.

"We're not going to insist on responding to the last mortar shell," a senior IDF officer said.

The IDF last carried out a strike on Gaza Saturday night, when the army struck what it said was a rocket-launching cell.

Hamas coping with losses

According to IDF sources, the Hamas military wing is not currently interested in an escalation of cross-border violence because of the recent deaths of its leaders during clashes with Israel. A Hamas commander in the Rafah area was killed in an Israeli air strike on Saturday and lower-level militant leaders were also killed recently.

The army said the Rafah-area commander, Tayser Abu Snima, had been directly involved in the 2006 capture of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, as well as launching rocket attacks on Israel, including a rocket fired from Sinai last year that hit the Gulf of Aqaba.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the cabinet yesterday that Hamas had sustained a serious blow: 25 fatalities and dozens wounded since clashes reignited.

He said the cease-fire overtures were coming from Hamas' political arm and that it was not clear whether its military wing was also interested in restoring cross-border calm.

Netanyahu instructed the ministers to not speak publicly about the fighting in Gaza, saying that only he, Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman were authorized to do so to ensure Israel sends out a uniform message. Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom ignored the directive, saying in an Army Radio interview that he wanted to expand the military operation in Gaza.

The cabinet also discussed ways to speed up the process of protecting Negev communities from rocket fire, and Netanyahu decided this week to allocate funding to purchase four more batteries of the Iron Dome missile defense system.

The U.S. Congress recently approved over $200 million in funding for Iron Dome, but Netanyahu said Israel would allocate the budget immediately rather than waiting for the American funds to come through.

In Cairo, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa - who will be leaving his post to run for Egyptian president - said the league decided yesterday to ask the UN Security Council to call on Israel to halt its strikes on Gaza.

Moussa said the Arab League would ask the UN to authorize a no-fly zone over Gaza to prevent aerial bombing.

Ahmed Bahar, a Hamas official in Gaza, called on the Arab world to take practical steps rather than sufficing with condemning Israel.

"We demand practical decisions for the halt of aggression and the reconstruction of the Strip," he said.