Hamas Declares End to Cease-fire, Israeli Gov't Sources Fear Violence Is Unavoidable

Hamas yesterday officially announced an end to its truce with Israel in the Gaza Strip. However, Jerusalem ordered the Israel Defense Forces to refrain from offensive operations for now, saying it wants to see how the situation develops.

"We will not be the ones to violate the cease-fire," a senior defense official said last night. "If Hamas wants to escalate, we will know how to act - and it will be clear to the international community who is behind the renewed fighting."

However, a senior government official warned, "if Hamas doesn't come to its senses and calm the situation, there will be no choice other than an Israeli military response."

The IDF has raised its alert level along the Gaza border. Yesterday, it canceled weekend leaves for all units stationed near the Strip and instructed units to prepare for mobilization. It has also ratcheted up its response to Palestinian rocket fire. Before dawn yesterday, the air force bombed a weapons storehouse in the Jabalya refugee camp and a rocket factory in Khan Yunis - the first strikes of this kind in the last six months. Nevertheless, these are still considered relatively low-level measures.

The air force also attacked several other targets in the Strip yesterday, including a Hamas border police post. That strike wounded two Hamas members.

As of yesterday evening, Palestinians had fired nine Qassam rockets and seven mortar shells at the western Negev over the day. However, most landed in empty areas and caused neither casualties nor property damage. Most of the fire came from Islamic Jihad rather than Hamas.

On Wednesday, a 40-year-old Palestinian was killed by IDF fire on Beit Lahia, in northern Gaza.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak consulted with senior defense officials about the situation yesterday, but both they and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi believe that a wait-and-see policy is best for now.

Senior officers explained that they do not see many options between the current low-level response and a full-scale invasion, because any such move would spark heavy rocket fire from Hamas, precluding a full-scale war. That is not something Israel wants at this time.

The IDF believes that Hamas is not seeking a full-scale confrontation either. Rather, it is hoping that Israel will get used to absorbing sporadic rocket fire without responding.

A senior officer said Israel would stop short of using artillery fire against populated Palestinian areas, as that is too likely to result in civilian casualties.

Hamas made its formal announcement that the truce would end today after consulting with the other Palestinian factions.

"The lull we agreed to under Egyptian auspices on June 19, which expires on December 19, has exhausted itself, since the enemy has not honored its commitments," said Ayman Taha, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza.

Palestinian sources said that Egypt is making no effort to calm the situation. They expect Hamas to escalate the fighting in the coming days, with the goal of pushing someone to take on the role of mediating a new truce.

Hamas, they explained, wants to renew the truce, but only on its own terms - namely, a complete opening of the border crossings with Israel, the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, a complete ban on Israeli military activity in Gaza and an extension of the truce to the West Bank as well. However, Israel will not accept these terms.

Palestinian analysts said that in light of the harsh conditions in Gaza caused by Israel's ongoing blockade, Hamas considers it vital to prove that it is still a "resistance organization" actively engaged in fighting Israel and capable of causing the Jewish state to bow to its terms.

But many Gaza residents, especially those who live near the Israeli border, expressed fear that the rocket fire would spark intensified IDF activity in the Strip that could last for several weeks. Residents of border areas began stockpiling food and water yesterday, though they did not move their families out.

Palestinian sources said they do not believe Hamas plans to launch a massive rocket strike on Israel unless the IDF begins offensive operations in the Strip. However, they added, it would not prevent other organizations, such as Islamic Jihad, from launching rockets and mortars.

Meanwhile, Osama Mazzini, the Hamas official in charge of negotiations with Israel over the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, charged yesterday that Israel recently rejected a European party's offer to mediate the talks. At the minute, he added, no talks on Shalit's release are taking place.