Attacks batter Gaza ceasefire

GAZA Mon Feb 2, 2009 6:59pm GMT

A Palestinian walks past an unfinished building at a construction site in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip January 29, 2009. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian walks past an unfinished building at a construction site in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip January 29, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

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GAZA (Reuters) - Israel carried out air strikes and Palestinians launched mortar bomb attacks on Monday despite a ceasefire in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, but Israel's defence minister said a wider offensive was not imminent.

Responding to Egyptian efforts to broker a long-term truce, a Hamas spokesman said it would be prepared to halt hostilities for a year if a deal could be reached on lifting Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip and reopening border crossings.

An Israeli aircraft attacked a car in the southern Gaza town of Rafah on the Egyptian border, killing one militant and wounding three other gunmen, medical officials said, identifying them as members of the Popular Resistance Committees.

The Israeli military said it targeted a squad that fired two mortar bombs into southern Israel. A Popular Resistance Committees spokesman said the dead gunman was a rocket-launching crew leader.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged on Sunday a "disproportionate" military response to continuing rocket salvoes that Palestinian militants have described as payback for fresh Israeli attacks.

But his defence minister, Ehud Barak, signalled Israel would stop short of all-out war.

"It is not our intention to have an Operation Cast Lead 2," he said in an interview with the YNet news Web site. Israel's 22-day offensive in Gaza before a ceasefire last month had been known as "Operation Cast Lead."

"We said there would be a response and there was a response last night," Barak said about Sunday's air strikes.

Barak's comments clashed with statements later on Monday by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

"We will continue to strike at Hamas. And our strategic goal cannot be to accept their existence," Livni said in speech.

"If a deterrence has not been achieved at the end of the campaign, we will continue to do so until they get the message. We will respond to every attack, every shooting at Israel, every attack on Israeli sovereignty and continue to take action if there is a need," she said.

Both Barak, head of the centre-left Labour Party, and Livni, chairman of the ruling, centrist Kadima party, are candidates for prime minister in Israel's February 10 election. Opinion polls forecast victory for right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud.

NO DAMAGE

A police spokesman said the Palestinian attack caused no casualties or damage. Sirens warning of more rocket launchings sounded later in the day but an army spokesman said there was no confirmation any had landed in Israeli territory.

On Sunday, Israeli planes attacked a Hamas security complex and smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.

There were no reported casualties in those strikes, the Israeli military said. The attacks followed the firing of about a dozen rockets and mortar bombs into southern Israel on Sunday, which wounded two Israeli soldiers and a civilian.

Israel and the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers put a ceasefire into effect on January 18 after the Israeli offensive that medical officials in the enclave said killed 1,300 Palestinians, including 700 civilians.

Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians were killed during the campaign, which Israel said was intended to end cross-border rocket fire.

Since the ceasefire was declared, one Israeli soldier was killed and three others were wounded when a bomb exploded next to their patrol. Israeli air strikes have killed four Palestinians and wounded 13.

With U.S. backing, Egypt is seeking a long-term truce deal that would end Hamas weapons smuggling into Gaza and also lead to a reopening of border crossings, one of Hamas's main demands.

A Hamas official said a delegation from the group planned to meet Egyptian mediators in Cairo on Tuesday.

"We in Hamas accept a calm for one year, and also a year and a half can be discussed if the conditions are met to lift the blockade completely and open all crossings including the Rafah crossing (with Egypt)," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

(Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Adam Entous in Jerusalem; Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Charles Dick)

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