Gazans brace for response as militants fire rocket into Israel

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Gaza militants fired a Qassam rocket into Israel on Wednesday, an escalation in the fighting that could bring Israeli retaliation and further undercut the Obama administration's high-profile effort to negotiate a lasting truce.

"There is no cease-fire," said Ahmed Yousef, the Hamas political adviser and deputy foreign minister in the Hamas-led Gaza Strip government. He said there could be one early next month, however, shortly before Israel holds national elections.

President Barack Obama's newly named special envoy, George Mitchell, said in Jerusalem that a cease-fire was of "critical importance." The former U.S. senator from Maine, who arrived in the region Tuesday, held closed-door talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday.

Twelve days ago, Israel unilaterally halted its 22-day military campaign in Gaza after killing more than 1,200 Palestinians and causing an estimated $2 billion in damage. It threatened to strike back hard, however, if Gaza militants resumed their attacks.

Palestinian militant groups vowed to hold their fire for one week, but that pledge ended Sunday. Since then, militants have bombed an Israeli patrol — killing an officer along the Gaza Strip border — fired a dozen mortars at southern Israel and launched the first new rocket from the northern Gaza Strip.

Israel responded to the roadside bombing by launching airstrikes early Wednesday morning on the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, which Palestinians use to smuggle weapons and other supplies from Egypt for the 1.5 million Gaza Strip residents.

As the militants stepped up their attacks, residents across the Gaza Strip braced for more Israeli strikes. Hamas officials evacuated police stations, government offices and other buildings that Israel bombed during the military campaign.

The Israeli military is expected to respond to the Gaza attacks, but Israel opted to hold its fire while Mitchell met with Israeli leaders.

After meeting with Olmert, Mitchell said that any long-term truce would take hold only if the smuggler tunnels were shut down and Israel reopened its border crossings with Gaza, to allow the normal flow of aid and supplies into the isolated Mediterranean strip.

Mitchell isn't meeting with Hamas, however, because the Islamist militant group refuses to renounce its pledge to destroy Israel. Despite the decision, Yousef said that he expected the Obama administration to begin secret or public diplomacy with Hamas eventually.

"I sense there is going to be a real invitation toward talking to Hamas or engaging Hamas sooner or later," Yousef said. "We're not going to see it in the next six or seven months, but in the minds of those people working with this administration, Hamas is the right address."

During the presidential campaign, Obama suggested that he was willing to open diplomatic channels to isolated leaders such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He made it clear, however, that he has no plans to scuttle American demands that Hamas abandon its pledge to destroy Israel before the U.S. reaches out to the Islamist leaders who control Gaza.

Amid the increasing Palestinian attacks, Egypt is trying to broker a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas.

Yousef said that Hamas was hoping to agree on a cease-fire with Israel by Feb. 5, five days before Israeli voters elect a new government. Polls find former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hawkish Likud Party holding a strong lead over the ruling Kadima Party, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and the center-left Labor Party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak.


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