Israel rejects Gaza truce offer

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The Independent Online

Israel has dismissed Hamas's offer of a six-month ceasefire in Gaza in return for lifting a blockade on the territory, on a day when a Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli security guards in the West Bank in an attack claimed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The Hamas offer, issued on Thursday following talks with Egyptian mediators, departed from previous demands by the group that any ceasefire apply simultaneously in Gaza and the occupied West Bank - the territories where Palestinians want statehood.

Hamas said Egypt would raise the truce idea with Israel next week and that it expected a more binding Israeli decision then.

Israel has been reluctant to enter any formal agreement that could shore up the hardline Islamists against their West Bank-based rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as he pursues US-sponsored peace talks with the Jewish state.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert signalled flexibility last month by saying military attacks on Gaza would cease if its Hamas rulers stopped cross-border rocket salvoes.

"Israel is interested in peace. Unfortunately, Hamas is playing games. Hamas is biding time in order to rearm and regroup," David Baker, an Olmert spokesman, said on Friday.

"Israel will continue to act to protect its citizens," Baker said, in reference to air strikes and commando raids in Gaza. "There would be no need for Israel's defensive actions if Hamas would cease and desist from committing terrorist attacks."

In fresh violence, a Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli security guards near the West Bank boundary in an attack claimed by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group. Islamic Jihad also fired four rockets into Israel from Gaza, causing no casualties.

Hamas was unfazed by Baker's comments, saying that an Egyptian mediator, Omar Suleiman, would visit Israel next week to take up the Gaza truce idea with the Olmert government.

"We will then get the Israeli response," Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar told reporters on returning to Gaza from Egypt.

Israeli officials said they had no knowledge of any planned visit by Suleiman next week.

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