Hamas today ruled out renewing the truce in and around Gaza and insisted the Islamist rulers of the Palestinian territory have a duty to respond to any attack by Israel. "There is no possibility of renewing the truce which ends on December 19 (Friday). The Zionist enemy destroyed it," Fawzi Barhum said as violence flared around the Gaza Strip one day before the ceasefire was to expire. "We at Hamas have the right to respond to any Zionist aggression against the Palestinian people. It's a national duty," he said, adding however that the Islamist movement would act "according to the situation on the ground."
Israel, which had hoped for an extension of the truce, also insisted it would respond when attacked. "When the situation requires us to, we will act," said the defence minister Ehud Barak. Mr Barak raised the spectre of a military intervention, but made it clear he saw no urgency. "We are not afraid of launching a large-scale military operation in Gaza but there is no need to rush into it," he told journalists.
Israeli forces conducted five air strikes and killed one Palestinian after militants fired a barrage of rockets yesterday, following up with a further volley at dawn this morning. Israel and Hamas have accused each other of violating the truce that was negotiated through Egyptian intermediaries as the Jewish state regards the Islamists as a terrorist outfit. The Israeli government says it is up to Hamas to stop attacks often carried out by smaller Palestinian factions, while the Islamists insist Israel must lift its blockade of the impoverished territory.
Israel responded to a flare-up of violence that erupted in early November by tightening sanctions and closing its crossing points with Gaza, halting deliveries of humanitarian aid and other basic supplies. Shortages caused by the closures have forced the United Nations to suspend its distribution of food assistance to about half of Gaza's 1.5 million population, the UN Works and Relief Agency said.
"Due to the ongoing crisis with irregular border access and the lack of wheat flour in Gaza, UNRWA has exhausted all stocks of flour in its warehouses," the agency said in a statement. "Wheat supplies scheduled to arrive in Gaza the 9-10 December were unable to enter due to rocket fire, hence the mills have run out of flour and UNRWA has been forced to suspend food distribution," it said. Rockets have rained down on southern Israel on an almost daily basis since November 4, and Israeli forces have killed 18 Palestinians in Gaza, almost all of them militants, in that period.
On Wednesday two people sustained shrapnel wounds and several cars were damaged when one of the rockets fired from Gaza exploded in the car park of a large supermarket in Sderot, an often-targeted Israeli city just outside the Palestinian enclave. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas plans to discuss the situation in Gaza at a meeting with George W Bush in Washington tomorrow. Mr Abbas has called for a continuation of the truce, but his authority has been limited to the occupied West Bank since Hamas ousted his forces and seized control of the coastal enclave in June 2007.
The situation in Gaza, and the divisions between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah party have further hobbled slow-moving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that were revived under US auspices in November 2007 after a seven-year hiatus. *AFP