Hamas breaches truce, fires 50 rockets; Israel halts Cairo talks, hits back

7 hours before truce’s end, Palestinians restart rocket fire; Hamas claims 2 members of terror commander Deif’s family killed

Smoke billows following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah in the southern of Gaza Strip, on August 19, 2014. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Smoke billows following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah in the southern of Gaza Strip, on August 19, 2014. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

In the midst of an extended truce, Palestinians fired a volley of rockets at Israeli territory on Tuesday afternoon, prompting Israel to launch fresh airstrikes on the Strip and declare that it was pulling out of talks on a long-term ceasefire in Cairo.

The Hamas rocket attacks, which intensified through Tuesday night, brought the collapse of Egyptian attempts to broker an end to a monthlong war between Israel and Hamas. Palestinian terrorists fired dozens of rockets and Israel responded with airstrikes across the Gaza Strip. Three Palestinians — two women and a 2-year-old girl — were killed in an airstrike on a house in Gaza City, Palestinian medical official Ashraf al-Kidra said.

In Cairo, Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas leader, said the dead included the wife and a child of Mohammed Deif, the Islamic terrorist group’s elusive military chief, who has escaped numerous Israeli assassination attempts in the past. There was no immediate confirmation from Hamas leaders in Gaza.

Twenty-one people were wounded in a separate airstrike that hit a building that houses offices of Hamas’s Al Aqsa TV station, al-Kidra said. The fatalities were the first since a temporary truce was reached last Wednesday.

Israeli officials reported at least 50 rockets were fired late Tuesday, setting off air raid sirens throughout southern Israel and as far away as the cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There were no reports of injuries, though a piece of a rocket that was intercepted near Tel Aviv fell on a busy road.

Israel’s civil defense authority, the Home Front Command, ordered authorities to reopen public bomb shelters within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of Gaza.

In Cairo, Palestinian negotiators declared the cease-fire talks over, and said they would leave Egypt on Wednesday.

Azzam al-Ahmad, leader of the delegation, blamed Israel for the failure, but held out hope that the talks could be resumed.

“We told the Egyptians we are ready to return to the talks once they find the proper atmosphere,” he said, adding that the Palestinians had submitted a final ceasefire proposal.

“It’s clear the Israelis are not interested in the ceasefire. We did not hear from them. We were willing to, but we did not hear from them,” he said.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the blame lay with Hamas. “When Hamas broke the ceasefire and fired rockets into Israel, they also violated the premise of the talks, which were based on an unconditional and total cease-fire,” he said.

He would not say whether Israel would resume ceasefire talks.

Egyptian security officials said Egypt was still pressing the two sides to agree on a ceasefire.

The breakdown marked a bitter ending to nearly a week of Egyptian-led diplomacy meant to end the heaviest fighting between Israel and Hamas since the Islamic terror group seized control of Gaza in 2007.

More than 2,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed, according to Palestinian and U.N. officials, and tens of thousands of people are homeless. Israel says 750-1,000 of the dead are Hamas and other gunmen, and it blames Hamas for causing all civilian casualties by staging attacks from residential areas. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers, two Israeli civilians and a guest worker have also been killed. Hamas has fired 3,400 rockets at Israel, and killed 11 of the soldiers in attacks through tunnels dug under the Israeli border.

Hamas is seeking an end to a seven-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has ravaged Gaza’s economy, while Israel wants guarantees that Hamas will disarm, having instituted the blockade to prevent Hamas bringing in more weaponry.

In nearly a week of indirect talks, Egypt appears to have made little headway in resolving the differences. Late Monday, it secured a 24-hour extension to a temporary truce to allow more time for a last-ditch attempt to reach a longer-term deal.

An Egyptian compromise proposal calls for easing the blockade, but not lifting it altogether or opening the territory’s air and seaports as Hamas has demanded.

While the plan does not require Hamas to give up its weapons, it would give Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces were ousted by Hamas in 2007, a foothold back in Gaza running border crossings and overseeing internationally-backed reconstruction. Abbas’s presence would minimize friction with Israel and allow large amounts of international aid to flow into Gaza for reconstruction.

In Cairo, members of the Palestinian delegation, which is comprised of various factions, said no progress had been made in Tuesday’s talks before the rocket fire restarted.

“Israel insisted during the talks on disarming the factions in Gaza, and that created huge difficulties during the talks,” said Kais Abdelkarim, a Palestinian negotiator.

Hamas finds itself pressured by both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to accept a less than perfect deal with Israel, but wants to show the people of Gaza that the enormous sacrifices they endured in the fighting were not in vain.

“Following renewed rocket attacks at Israel earlier this evening, amid the ceasefire, the IDF is currently targeting terror sites across the Gaza Strip,” the IDF said in a statement late Tuesday.

“The IDF remains alert and maintains both defensive and striking capabilities in order to address the renewed aggression. The IDF is determined to defend the civilians of the State of Israel.”

Three rockets were fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip Tuesday afternoon, an IDF spokesman said — the first violation of the truce between Israel and Hamas since it was announced at midnight last Wednesday. Hamas repeatedly breached earlier short-term truces in the six-week conflict. Later attacks targeted Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv area.

An Israeli official, speaking to AFP, confirmed the Israeli delegation had been “ordered to return from Cairo” in response to the rocket fire.

“Yet again, terrorists breach the ceasefire and renew fire at Israeli civilians from Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. This continued aggression will be addressed accordingly by the IDF; we will continue striking terror infrastructure, pursuing terrorists, and eliminating terror capabilities in the Gaza Strip, in order to restore security for the State of Israel,” said IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner.

Elhanan Miller and AFP contributed to this report.

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