Blow to truce hopes as Gaza retaliates for Bethlehem dead

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The Independent Online

Hopes of even an unofficial truce between Israel and Hamas were dealt a serious blow yesterday as 22 Qassam rockets were launched from Gaza in response to the killing by Israeli forces of four Palestinian militants in Bethlehem.

The fresh outbreak of conflict after a week-long lull came as John Holmes, the UN's top humanitarian official, sharply criticised Israel's sealing of Gaza's borders as ineffective.

"It's not stopping the rockets, it's not producing the desired political effects," he said. Mr Holmes stopped short of proposing international or Israeli engagement with Hamas but called for "political dialogue and trust" – adding that the idea that the blockade would stimulate Gazans to rise up against the Islamic faction was "not well founded".

Responsibility for some of the rockets – which in turn were followed by two Israeli air strikes on Gaza – was claimed by Islamic Jihad. Three of the group's militants in Bethlehem, along with one from the Fatah-linked Al-Aqsa Martyrs, were killed on Wednesday.

The men had been wanted by Israel for about eight years because of previous attacks on Israelis but were not thought to be planning a specific operation at the time. Israel's move appeared to underline its rejection of toughened demands from Hamas that it should stay its hand in the West Bank in return for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister said it had demonstrated that Israel "will continue to pursue and strike all murderers with Jewish blood on their hands”.

There had been earlier indications that Hamas in Gaza had dropped their demand for a halt to Israeli operations in the West Bank. But this week Khaled Meshaal, the Damscus-based head of its political bureau said that a ceasefire would have to apply in the West Bank as well, and the de facto Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh appeared to back him on Wednesday.

Egypt has also been pressing Israel to agree to some reopening of the border crossings as part of the ceasefire it is trying to broker - a move increasingly also urged by the international community.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev again held Hamas, because of its control of Gaza, as responsible for yesterday's rockets - only six of which actually reached Israeli territory according to the military. A former deputy defence minister Ephraim Sneh said there could be no solution to the conflict "without the military wiping out Hamas”.

Mr Holmes said: "You could imagine that Israel would be pursuing a policy of being very generous to the West Bank and showing what can happen if it's run not by Hamas, but that's not what's happening."