GAZA CITY - Israel is examining a Hamas truce proposal delivered by Egypt, defense officials said yesterday after at least six Palestinians were killed in a day of Israeli air and ground strikes aimed at stopping rocket salvos from Gaza.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the Hamas proposal was limited to stopping the rocket fire in exchange for a halt to Israeli military operations in Gaza. They said Hamas gave assurances it could impose the truce on the militant groups that are firing the rockets - Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees.
There was no immediate comment from the Egyptian government.
Despite the tentative contacts, there were more Palestinian rocket barrages yesterday. One rocket fired by militants in Gaza exploded next to an Israeli school, terrifying children. Late yesterday, Hamas said it fired three rockets at Israel, its first such claim in weeks, putting the truce talk in doubt.
Hamas first floated the idea of a truce earlier this week when its leader, Ismail Haniyeh, called an Israeli TV reporter. Israel rejected the advance, saying there was no need for a truce because if the rocket fire stopped, Israel would have no reason to attack.
Israel refuses to deal directly with Hamas because the militant Islamic movement rejects the existence of a Jewish state in the Islamic Middle East and routinely calls for its destruction. Previous truces have been negotiated through Egyptian mediation, but none has held for long.
Vice Premier Haim Ramon said the overture was proof that Israel's strategy of blockading Gaza and battling militants there is working.
"All of these . . . comments, and the messages coming in all kinds of strange ways, all of these things are a kind of smoke screen that just shows that Israel's recent policy toward Palestinian terror is bearing fruit," Ramon told Army Radio.
In amateur video of the rocket attack yesterday on the battered Israeli town of Sderot, taken from inside the school, the sound of the explosion is clearly heard. Children scream and cry as a teacher tries to round them up and guide them to a safe location.
No one was hurt, but Israeli officials said about a dozen children suffered panic attacks, and one was taken to a hospital for shock.
Pictures such as those from Sderot, a favorite target of rocket squads just half a mile from the Gaza-Israel border fence, have increased pressure on Israel's government to take action to stop the rocket attacks.
Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said repeatedly that a large-scale invasion of Gaza is nearing, but specialists and officials acknowledge that such invasions have not stopped the rockets in the past.
Instead, the military is using pinpoint strikes to try to deter the militants, such as those yesterday. Troops entered central Gaza and withdrew after nightfall, the military said.
Israel said its forces killed seven Palestinian gunmen in four clashes yesterday. Palestinians confirmed six dead and 20 wounded.
Israeli ground forces in central Gaza killed two approaching gunmen, the army said, and later shot dead two more militants. Palestinians said five militants were killed. Two of the bodies were recovered after nightfall.
Hospital officials said another person was also killed in the clash.
A Reuters soundman was shot in the leg while covering the clashes. It was not clear whether he was wounded by Israeli or Palestinian fire, the news agency said. A photographer for Hamas television was also slightly injured.