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Hamas, Israel at odds on cease-fire status; strikes continue

Smoke rose in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, after an airstrike by Israel yesterday close to the Egyptian border. Smoke rose in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, after an airstrike by Israel yesterday close to the Egyptian border. (Eyad Baba/Associated Press)
By Ethan Bronner
New York Times / February 14, 2009
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JERUSALEM - Hamas officials said yesterday that an announcement of an 18-month cease-fire with Israel was days away and would include a substantial opening of Gaza's borders with Israel in exchange for an end to Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli southern communities. But a senior Israeli official said nothing had been agreed on.

Meanwhile, rockets were fired into Israel yesterday, causing no injuries.

Hours later, Israel retaliated with an airstrike that killed a man and critically wounded another near the Gaza town of Khan Yunis, Palestinian security officials said. The dead man was a member of the small, violent Popular Resistance Committees group. The Israeli military, confirming the strike, said the men were planning an attack on Israel.

The Khan Yunis strike was followed by air attacks on what the military said were six weapons-smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. The military said "secondary explosions" were observed at some of the sites, a phrase used to indicate that arms or explosives were stored there. A spokesman said the strikes were in response to the earlier Palestinian attacks. There were no reports of Palestinian casualties in the raids on the tunnels.

Israeli aircraft struck again before midnight, Palestinian officials said, hitting a field north of Gaza City used as a launch site for one of the earlier rocket attacks and a carpenter's shop in the Jabaliya refugee camp where a man suffered moderate injuries. The Israeli military, however, said both airstrikes hit weapons-producing workshops in Jabaliya.

Israel and Hamas had a six-month cease-fire mediated by Egypt starting in June, but it was repeatedly violated and after it ended, Israel launched a three-week air, land, and sea assault on Gaza aimed at stopping the rockets and weakening Hamas. Some 1,300 Palestinians were killed and thousands of buildings and homes destroyed. Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, also died.

The new prospective accord, again being mediated by Egypt, is aimed at rebuilding Gaza after the war and involves reconstruction and reconciliation between Hamas and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, according to Ismael Ridwan, a Hamas spokesman, who spoke by telephone after extensive talks between Egyptian and Hamas officials.

He said among the materials that would be allowed to flow into Gaza in the new arrangement were cement and steel, which Egypt would monitor. Those materials are desperately needed for rebuilding, but the agreement would not allow pipes, cables, and chemicals that Israel fears could be used for bombs.

Israel wanted to include the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, seized and held by Hamas since the summer of 2006, but Hamas said that would only happen in a separate, if linked, deal that frees hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

The director of Hamas's political bureau in Syria, Khaled Meshal, said that there was no agreement about Shalit and that Israel was trying to link his release with opening the border crossings into Gaza.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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