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Israel, militants resume airstrikes as Gaza truce ends

Fighting may be aimed at gaining leverage in talks

Israeli airstrikes hit northern Gaza City on Friday in response to rocket attacks by Palestinian militants as a three-day truce ended.

MOHAMMED SABER /european Pressphoto Agency

Israeli airstrikes hit northern Gaza City on Friday in response to rocket attacks by Palestinian militants as a three-day truce ended.

GAZA CITY — Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip resumed cross-border air assaults after a three-day cease-fire expired Friday, but the renewed violence seemed less about meeting military goals than about jockeying for leverage in talks that had made little progress toward a more durable truce.

Militants led by Hamas, the Islamist faction that dominates Gaza, sent a rocket soaring toward southern Israel exactly as the agreed-upon pause expired at 8 a.m. and fired about 50 throughout the day, wounding one soldier and one civilian and damaging a house in the border town of Sderot.

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Israel, which withdrew its ground troops earlier this week, responded quickly with airstrikes and artillery shelling that by day’s end had hit nearly 50 targets and killed five people, including three children. But Israel showed no signs of seeking to re-invade Gaza or escalate its airstrikes.

The cause of the fighting appeared to be Hamas’s frustration that it could not get what it considers meaningful concessions from Israel and Egypt at the talks in Cairo.

The Egyptian foreign ministry asserted that the parties had reached agreement on “the great majority of topics” and urged an extension of the cease-fire to address “the very limited points still pending.” But Palestinian officials said the Israeli delegation had hardly addressed their demands to open border crossings, remove restrictions on trade, establish a seaport, and release prisoners.

Palestinian and Israeli analysts alike said that after a month of death and destruction, Hamas could not stop fighting without a tangible civic achievement and was finding it difficult to climb down from an ambitious agenda in the face of a strong Egyptian-Israeli alliance.

The conflict on the ground between an advanced, high-tech military and a guerrilla group appeared to find an echo in diplomacy, as Egypt, Israel, and the United States all pushed for President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to take a leading role in running and rehabilitating Gaza. That would be a blow to Hamas, which took control of the territory in 2007, and tricky for Abbas, whose perceived cooperation with Israel has already hurt his credibility among Palestinians.

Ahmed Yousef, a former Hamas leader who remains close to the movement, likened the renewed fighting to two people biting each other’s fingers to see who would surrender first.

“This is like a game, a chess game — you have all the time to continue, to show your enemy that you stay strong,” Yousef said in an interview at a seaside hotel in Gaza City. “For three days we couldn’t have a solid answer from the Israelis, so you have to go back to fighting. Your legitimate demand is not answered, so you have to put pressure on the other side.”

Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who specializes in Arab affairs, said, “Hamas is in a bind because they have set such a high bar with their demands.

“But you can see today Hamas and Israel exchanged blows but on a low scale — they were not firing all that they can,” Yaari noted. “Everybody understands there may be an extension or a new cease-fire.”

A senior Palestinian official briefed on the Cairo negotiations said that Israel and Egypt had essentially dismissed all talk of a seaport or restored airport in Gaza and only agreed to ease limits on travel and imports. In exchange for these concessions, Israel and its international backers demanded the demilitarization of Gaza, something the Palestinians said would come only with the establishment of an independent state.

“As Palestinians, we don’t want escalation, but it is our right to defend ourselves,” Azzam al-Ahmed, a negotiator who is close to Abbas, said in Cairo. “We won’t stay here indefinitely,” he added, referring to the talks.

A Palestinian protester with a slingshot lobbed a stone at Israeli troops in Bethlehem on the West Bank.

Ammar Awad/REUTERS

A Palestinian protester with a slingshot lobbed a stone at Israeli troops in Bethlehem on the West Bank.

Kobi Michael, former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, said the negotiations so far had proved “a very humiliating treatment of Hamas by Egypt.” The country’s new president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, views Hamas as an enemy because it sprang from his main domestic rival, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt’s role is critical not only as a broker of the talks, but because it controls Gaza’s gateway to the world, the Rafah border crossing, which has been closed much of the past year. Cairo has indicated that having Abbas’s security forces back on the border, as they were before Hamas wrested control of Gaza in 2007, would be required to get it reopened.

“The Egyptians don’t bother with political correctness, they are very direct,” Michael said. “The Egyptians have a long memory and like to serve up revenge cold.”

Except for the weapons so central to its identity, Hamas has little to offer at the bargaining table. Renewing the rocket fire not only sent Israelis scrambling into bomb shelters on another sunny Friday, it also returned the world’s attention to the killing of nearly 1,900 Gaza residents since July 8, most of them civilians, including a 10-year-old boy felled by a drone Friday morning as he played at a mosque under construction near his home.

The day’s exchanges, however, were less aggressive than before the cease-fire. An airstrike hit a Gaza City home of Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, injuring three, witnesses said.

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