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Gaza truce violated after rocket attacks

The missile attacks came soon after the ceasefire aimed at ending bloodshed in the coastal strip, came into effect.

india Updated: Nov 26, 2006 17:36 IST

Palestinian militants fired several rockets at Israel from Gaza on Sunday just hours after a ceasefire aimed at ending five months of bloodshed in the impoverished coastal strip took effect.

The truce, which has raised the possibility of moribund Middle East peacemaking being revived, is designed to end rocket attacks and halt a crushing Israeli army offensive in Gaza.

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for firing three rockets at southern Israel and said it would not agree to a ceasefire unless Israeli military activity also ended in the occupied West Bank. No one was hurt in the attacks.

"There is no way to talk about a truce as long as aggression continues on any of our land," Islamic Jihad, one of the bigger Palestinian terrorist organisations, said in a statement.

The armed wing of the governing Hamas Islamist movement said it fired two rockets at Israeli targets, arguing Israeli troops were still inside Gaza despite a statement from the army that all had withdrawn.

Israel said the truce did not cover the West Bank. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said it was too early to say if the Gaza agreement was unraveling.

"We have to see this as the start of an opportunity. We are at the initial hours of this process, it is too early to say," Livni told Army Radio.

Palestinian cabinet spokesman Ghazi Hamad said the government would speak to the factions which violated the truce. "We are committed to the agreement on calm ... We will look into this, we will talk to the factions concerned," Hamad said.

The Israeli army said it had withdrawn its forces from Gaza overnight, before the truce took effect. Palestinian witnesses confirmed soldiers had left northern Gaza, where operations against rocket-launching squads had been focused.

"Thanks to God the Israeli forces have quit our land in defeat. We feel like victors," said Abdel-Majid Ash-Shanti, 23, who lives in northern Gaza.

The ceasefire if it holds could pave the way for a summit between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on ways to restart peacemaking. Peace talks collapsed in 2000, just before a Palestinian uprising erupted.

Prisoner swap

The truce might also speed up efforts to arrange a swap of Palestinian prisoners in Israel for an Israeli soldier whose capture by gunmen in a cross-border raid from Gaza in late June sparked the Israeli military assault.

Hamas, whose rise to power in the Palestinian territories after winning January elections triggered a Western aid boycott that has deepened economic hardship, had been instrumental in persuading militant groups to agree to the truce.

But the unwillingness of Islamic Jihad to sign up at all could be a major setback.

Abbas, a moderate whose long-dominant Fatah faction was beaten in the elections, informed Olmert of the deal in a phone call late on Saturday. The president has long sought a halt to the attacks, calling them "useless".

Israel, which completed a pullout of troops and settlers from Gaza in September 2005, threatened last week to step up the military offensive after an upsurge in rocket attacks.

More than 400 Palestinians, about half of them militants, have been killed in the offensive, Palestinian hospital officials and residents say. Three Israeli soldiers and two civilians have been killed since the assault began.

Adherence to the truce could help Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas finalize talks on forming a unity government that Palestinians hope can lead to the lifting of Western sanctions imposed after Hamas came to power in March.

A halt to rocket attacks could also ease pressure on Olmert at home, where his popularity has flagged after a July-August war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon that ended inconclusively with a UN-brokered truce.