Israel and Hamas ratcheted up the rhetoric yesterday ahead of the expiry of a six-month Gaza truce that the Islamist rulers of the Palestinian enclave say they are unlikely to renew.
Top Israeli officials say the government is interested in continuing the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire but also warned that it would not hesitate to use force if attacked by militants.
“If the lull continues, Israel will respect it. If the opposite occurs, we will react ... with the appropriate military means,” Amos Gilad, an adviser to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, told public radio as he dismissed Hamas’ claim that the truce, which went into effect on June 19, ends this week.
“When we accepted a lull six months ago it was clearly understood that there was no end date,” said Gilad, who had conducted the negotiations for the Egyptian-mediated truce.
“For Israel, the date December 19 has no significance,” he said.
Gilad visited Cairo on Sunday for talks with Egyptian mediators but denied having gone there specifically to discuss extending the truce, which has been shaken by a flare-up in violence around Gaza since early last month.
The trip drew criticism from several of the Israeli government’s more hawkish ministers who are demanding tougher responses to rocket attacks from Gaza.
Israel boycotts Hamas a terrorist group and has blockaded Gaza since the Islamist movement violently seized control of the territory in June last year.
Military officials were discussing with the attorney general the legal and international ramifications of an operation inside Gaza should Hamas not renew the truce, public radio reported.
Hamas political supremo Khaled Meshaal made it clear on Sunday the Islamists were unlikely to renew the truce.
“Given that the enemy is not respecting its commitments and the blockade is still in place against our people, for Hamas, and I think for the majority of forces, the truce ends after December 19 and will not be renewed,” he said in a television interview with the movement’s Al-Quds satellite TV.
Hamas says Israel is not sticking to its side of the bargain because it has conducted attacks in Gaza and has failed to ease the crippling sanctions it imposed last year.
Israel further restricted the amount of humanitarian and other basic supplies allowed into the territory since a flare-up of violence early last month.
Authorities say Gaza militants fired more than 200 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel since Nov. 4. Seventeen Palestinians — most of them militants —- have been killed in the territory during that period.
Israel’s mass circulation Yediot Aharonot daily said the Israeli military establishment believes both sides are headed towards large-scale confrontation.
“It may be immediate, gradual, tomorrow or in two weeks,” the newspaper said.
Israeli was scheduled to release 227 Palestinian prisoners yesterday after the Supreme Court rejected an appeal against the move.