Olmert rejects Hamas ceasefire feeler

142.jpgOCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday brushed off a Hamas ceasefire feeler, pledging instead to press ahead with Israel’s campaign against Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip and stop their daily rocket fire.Within an hour of his remarks, Hamas fighters fired mortars at an army base near the Gaza border, wounding four soldiers.

The mortar attack, on Erez border crossing, seriously wounded one soldier and slightly wounded three others. The army said it was the first time soldiers were hurt in more than two weeks of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Hamas fighters quickly claimed responsibility, and Israel closed Erez, the main crossing for people between Israel and Gaza.

Fighters have fired more than 280 rockets at Israel since May 15, killing two Israelis, injuring dozens and sending terrified residents fleeing from their border towns. In counterstrikes on the Gaza Strip, the army has killed more than 60 Palestinians, most of them fighters. But in recent days, there has been a sharp reduction in Palestinian rocket and mortar fire, and Hamas has suggested a one-year truce with Israel. At the weekly meeting of his Cabinet on Sunday, Olmert said Israel would not ease its military campaign against Palestinian fighters.

“In light of what appears to be a drop in Qassam rocket fire, I want to make clear: We are not holding negotiations. We are not committing to changing our method of operations,” Olmert said.

“The security forces will continue to operate against the terrorists in the south, in the Gaza Strip area, and in West Bank relentlessly. No one has immunity.” In an interview published over the weekend in the Egyptian daily Ahram, Hamas deputy political leader Moussa Abu Marzouk suggested the group may be interested in a one-year truce with Israel.

“Both parties have to abide by it,” he said.

But Hamas wants the ceasefire to include the West Bank as well as Gaza, an idea that Israel rejects as a ploy to allow fighters time to regroup before renewing attacks.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but still occupies the West Bank, sending forces on nightly arrest raids against Palestinian fighters.

Early Sunday, Israeli troops killed a Palestinian fighter in the West Bank town of Jenin, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

That clash came not long after Israeli troops on an overnight arrest raid in the nearby town of Nablus killed an unarmed Palestinian, according to Palestinian security officials. The army said troops fired at a fighter.

A previous Gaza truce between Hamas and Israel unravelled in mid-May when Hamas resumed its rocket launchings into Israel after a six-month halt, during which other groups fired rockets.

Stopping the bloodshed will be at the top of the agenda in a meeting later this week between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas, from the moderate Fateh Party, has been trying to press Hamas, his coalition partner, to renew the truce.

But Israel is sceptical of Hamas’ intentions.

“The current ceasefire in Gaza is unfortunately a sham,” said foreign ministry spokesman, Mark Regev. “It would seem that before we talk about expanding the ceasefire, we should first get it right.” Israel says there can be no major progress on the diplomatic front before Hamas-linked fighters release an Israeli soldier captured in a cross-border raid nearly a year ago. Shalit has not been seen or heard from, and secret negotiations for a prisoner swap have not succeeded.

In an interview published Sunday in the Palestinian newspaper Quds, Hamas spokesman Ayman Taha said Israel and Hamas were still haggling over the details of the deal.

Taha said Israel rejected a list of 350 prisoners Hamas wanted released, agreeing to only 45 of the names.

Late Sunday, an 18-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by members of a rival clan in southern Gaza, security officials said, just the latest casualty in a long feud between the families.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad said that a new account set up to bypass an international boycott of Hamas has begun disbursing tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Fayyad said Arab countries and Norway have already paid $184 million into the new fund, However, he said the end of the boycott, imposed when Hamas rose to power more than a year ago, was not yet in sight, and the two biggest donors to the Palestinians — the US and European Union — have not committed to it, he said.

In Gaza City, about 50 female TV anchors and workers marched on Sunday to protest an Islamist group’s threat to behead them if they did not don modest Islamic dress.

“We will cut throats, and from vein to vein, if needed to protect the spirit and morals of this nation,” the shadowy group, the Swords of Truth, said in a statement e-mailed to news agencies on Friday. The statement accused the female anchors of being “without any … shame or morals.”

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