Both Hamas and Israel on Sunday signaled willingness to agree to a mutual cease-fire to end days of cross-border violence that saw at least 19 Palestinians killed and more than 100 rockets fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip.
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Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel would be willing to accept a mutual cease-fire with Hamas if the movement stopped firing from Gaza. "If they stop firing on our communities, we will stop firing. If they stop firing in general, it will be quiet, it will be good," Barak told Israel Radio.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters that "The Palestinian factions are not interested in escalation," adding: "If the Israeli aggression stopped, it would be natural for calm to be restored."
Palestinian militants fired approximately 120 rockets and mortars at Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip over the weekend, with tens of thousands of people spending the past few nights in reinforced rooms.
Another three mortar rounds hit the Negev early Sunday, and a rocket exploded south of Ashkelon later in the morning. Another rocket targeting Ashkelon was intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system. No casualties were reported in any of those incidents, but electricity was temporarily cut in parts of the region.
A total of 38 rockets were fired at Israel on Saturday, 23 of which were aimed at Negev communities and 15 at communities in the Lachish region. There were no injuries in the Palestinian rocket barrage, but damage to homes and poultry runs in the Eshkol region was extensive. Most fell in open areas.
The Israel Air Force's Iron Dome system has successfully intercepted a total of eight rockets fired at Ashkelon and Be'er Sheva since Thursday.
In Gaza, the death toll among Palestinian militants and civilians climbed to 19 since Israel launched its retaliation for a rocket attack on a school bus that critically wounded a teenager on Thursday.
Asked if Israel was considering a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip to end Hamas's rule there, Barak said all options were on the table, but that it may not be necessary.
"If it will be necessary, we will act, but when it's not necessary, we don't need to," he said. "Restraint is also a form of strength."
GOC Southern Command Tal Russo met Friday with the heads of the local authorities near Gaza and said Thursday's rocket attack on a school bus, which critically injured 16-year-old Daniel Viflic "crossed red lines."
"We are in the midst of action, and we will weigh all options of response," Russo added.
According to the head of emergency medical services in Gaza, Adham Abu-Salmiya, most of those hit were civilians, and among the dead were several women and children.
Five Palestinians were killed on Thursday, and 10 on Friday, among them a 45-year-old woman, Najah Kadih, and her 25-year-old daughter, Nadal Kadih, in Khan Yunis, according to Palestinian reports.
The IDF said it regretted the deaths of non-combatants but accused Hamas of continuing to operate from within civilian population concentrations.
Two of those killed Friday were identified as members of the military wings of Islamic Jihad and Hamas, Balal al-Ariar and Riyad Shehada, according to statements from those groups.
Among the dead was also a 10-year-old boy, Wail al-Jaro.
According to Hamas, two senior militants of the Hamas military wing were killed Saturday morning and one was critically injured when the vehicle in which they were riding was fired on from the air west of Rafah.
The two men killed were identified by Palestinian sources as Taysir Abu Sanima and Mohammad al-Uja. Abu Sanima is suspected of involvement in the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit and is also believed to have been behind the firing of Katyusha rockets a few months ago from Sinai to Eilat.
Reports from Gaza say that the Israel Defense Forces fired heavy artillery from tanks and cannons as well as from the air, including from F-16s.
A 30-year-old militant of the military wing of the Popular Resistance Committees, Zoheir Albar, was killed in an artillery strike on the Zeitun neighborhood of Gaza City. Three more militants were injured in the same incident, two of them seriously.
Palestinian sources reported Saturday that a civilian in his 50s, Ahmed Azeituna, was killed by an artillery shell in Jabalya, north of Gaza City.
Hamas denounced what it called international silence in the face of Israeli aggression, particularly by the European Union, considering that Hamas had announced a cease-fire after it fired at the school bus Thursday.
The Arab League is to convene an emergency meeting today in response to a demand by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas called on the Arab League and the European Union to pressure Israel to stop the fighting.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Saturday that Israel had continued artillery and aerial fire on civilian concentrations and while Hamas did not want to be dragged into conflict with Israel, it could not ignore what he said was Israel's aggression. The Hamas military wing said it would respond accordingly to Israeli aggression and Hamas military wing spokesman Abu Obeida said: "Palestinian blood is not for forfeiting."
Security sources said Saturday that as long as rocket fire continued from the Gaza Strip, Israel would continue extensive air attacks there.
Security sources also said that while the Hamas government in the Strip wants to calm the situation, the military wing continues to allow rocket fire from its own people and other factions.
Senior Egyptian officials met over the weekend with senior Israeli and Hamas figures to try to prevent further escalation in Gaza.
Sources in the Prime Minister's Bureau said Israel did not want escalation, but that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had decided on his return to Israel on Friday from Berlin and Czech Republic to respond resolutely to fire from the Gaza Strip to create deterrence.
Netanyahu met over the weekend with Defense Minister Barak and spoke with other defense officials over the phone.