Hamas on alert in Gaza after truce with Israel ends

GAZA Sat Dec 20, 2008 5:05am IST

Islamic Jihad militants stand guard at an anti-Israel rally organised by an Islamic Jihad movement in Gaza December 19, 2008. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

Islamic Jihad militants stand guard at an anti-Israel rally organised by an Islamic Jihad movement in Gaza December 19, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Suhaib Salem

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GAZA (Reuters) - Armed Islamist factions in Gaza went on alert on Friday after declaring an end to a six-month truce with Israel and warned the Jewish state not to attack the coastal enclave.

But apart from rhetoric, calm largely prevailed, although at least three makeshift rockets, a relatively small number compared to other days in the past week, were launched at Israel, an army spokesman said.

Masked Palestinians armed with AK-47 assault rifles paraded in front of television cameras immediately after the Islamist Hamas group, which controls the coastal strip, said it was unilaterally ending the ceasefire.

Several thousand Gazans rallied in support of the Islamic Jihad group in the southern town of Khan Younis. They burned effigies of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and U.S. President George W. Bush and their respective flags.

Egypt, which brokered the truce in June, said it had not been asked to intercede in a bid to repair it. But Russia later on Friday urged Hamas to reinstate the agreement.

"We think it is necessary that Hamas review its earlier announced decision on ending the ceasefire," Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said in a statement. Moscow viewed the move with "great concern" and warned that it could end in disastrous humanitarian consequences for Gaza's inhabitants.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she hoped violence would not erupt and stressed U.S. support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' efforts to negotiate a peace deal with Israel.

"A renewed threat of violence against Israel is going to do nothing for the people of Gaza except deepen their misery, which has been imposed by Hamas," Rice told reporters at a news conference with Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa.

Civilians in Israel and Gaza alike seemed to shrug off the end of the ceasefire, which many in Gaza feel never delivered the expected easing of the Israeli blockade and Israelis viewed as never producing the sought security from Palestinian attacks.

The truce has been eroded almost daily since early November by Israeli raids against Islamist militants and showers of largely ineffective rockets fired into Israel from Gaza.

GAZA "GRAVEYARD"

The masked gunmen made televised statements before Friday prayers, warning there would be bloodshed if Israel attacked.

"We will be the soldiers of our nation...If they come in here then Gaza will be their graveyard, a large graveyard for the invaders," an officer of Hamas's Izz el-Deen al-Qassam armed wing said.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak stated this week he had no plans to order a large assault on Gaza unless there was a gross provocation and that the ceasefire should be extended.

Egypt said it had not been asked to try to reinstate the truce. A foreign ministry spokesman also defend the Egyptian policy of restricting movement through the Rafah border crossing, Gaza's only outlet not under full Israeli control.

"If we do open up and deal with the strip in a normal way, making Rafah the main crossing point for people and goods, that means the occupying power (Israel) can relinquish its responsibility and pass the burden on to Egypt," he said.

Some of Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinian residents, who rely on supplies via illicit tunnels from Egypt as long as Israel keeps borders closed, feel the truce was a swindle.

"With or without truce it is all the same. The truce was not too good, it is all the same," said Talal al-Assal.

Residents of the quiet southern Israeli town of Sderot, regularly in the firing line of Gaza rockets, were watchful but hardly more alarmed than on any other day in the past month.

"Of course we are worried, but there is nothing we can do. Life must go on," resident Shimon Maman said.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Wright in Cairo and Conor Sweeney in Moscow)

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