Rocket fire casts doubt on truce in Gaza

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CAIRO — Palestinian leaders said early today that in the last moments before the midnight expiration of their previous cease-fire with Israel in Gaza, the two sides had agreed to hold their fire for an additional five days to continue talks about a more durable truce.

But an exchange of rockets and missiles around the end of one cease-fire and the beginning of the next cast immediate doubt about whether it would even last until dawn.

Israeli officials said a series of as many as eight rockets had been launched from Gaza toward Israel, beginning with one about 9:30 p.m. and ending with two fired at around 1 a.m.; none caused any damage or injuries.

Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls Gaza, denied responsibility for the rockets, suggesting that other militants outside its control had carried them out.

In the early hours of today, Gaza residents reported the sound of Israeli missiles striking Gaza. An Israeli military representative said its forces had carried retaliatory strikes inside Gaza against what the military referred to as “rocket-launching strikes, weapons stores and terror strikes.” The military said in a statement that it stood ready “to address renewed aggression.”

Israeli officials did not confirm or deny their agreement to the cease-fire extension, which was announced by Palestinian negotiators meeting in Cairo for Egyptian-brokered peace talks. But the Palestinian negotiators and Egyptian officials appeared to believe that the extension could survive the exchanges around midnight, and the Egyptian state news media reported that the cease-fire had taken effect.

The talks for a longer-term truce have been hung up mainly on Palestinian demands for steps to loosen the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza, as well for Israel to release the roughly 50 Palestinian prisoners that it captured during the recent conflict. Israel, in turn, is seeking provisions to disarm Hamas or limit its access to more weapons.

But as the midnight deadline approached, the negotiators from Hamas broke for consultations with their leaders in Gaza and in exile in Doha, Qatar, according to diplomats briefed on the talks.

The Hamas representatives returned with subtle amendments to the draft truce proposals that the Egyptians believed were promising, the diplomats said. Egyptian officials said the Israelis had agreed to the five-day extension to continue the talks toward a longer-term truce.

Israel had initiated a unilateral cease-fire, declaring that the country’s most recent military campaign in Gaza had met its goals of weakening Hamas, so the commitment of the Palestinian militants to hold their rocket fire was always the key to renewing the cease-fire. Israel has also preferred longer-term cease-fires to extend the quiet for talks.

A White House statement said President Barack Obama had talked by phone Wednesday night with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and discussed “the ongoing negotiations in Cairo to achieve a sustainable cease-fire agreement.”

But people involved in the talks said the call was unlikely to have played a role in the agreement to extend the cease-fire, because the shift that made it possible occurred on the Palestinian side.

Announcing the extension at a Cairo hotel where the negotiations are happening, Azzam al-Ahmed, a Palestinian delegation leader, said the talks had yielded progress. “When we come back in five days, we hope it is the final agreement to make the cease-fire permanent and end the attack on Gaza and end the Israeli destruction machine,” he said, accusing the Israeli side of failing to accept that it was now negotiating with a unified Palestinian government — backed by both the Islamist militants of Hamas as well as the Western-backed, secular factions of the Palestinian Authority.

israel - egypt - Middle East - Barack Obama - Africa - Palestinian territories - North Africa - Palestinian territories government - Gaza Strip - Benjamin Netanyahu - Cairo - Hamas


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