Gaza cease-fire efforts collapse in heavy fighting

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Egyptian attempts to broker an end to a monthlong war between Israel and Hamas collapsed in heavy fighting Tuesday, with Palestinian militants firing dozens of rockets and Israel responding with airstrikes across the Gaza Strip. At least three Palestinians were killed.

The burst of violence, which erupted in the hours before a temporary truce was set to expire, left the Egyptian mediation efforts in tatters and raised the likelihood of a new round of fighting in a war that has already claimed more than 2,000 lives, most of them Palestinians.

The fighting broke out when Gaza militants fired several rockets into Israel Tuesday afternoon. Israel quickly withdrew its delegation from the Cairo cease-fire talks and resumed its campaign of airstrikes, and fighting continued into the night.

Three people — 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. The target of the airstrike wasn’t immediately known.

However, in Cairo, Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas leader, said the dead included the wife and a child of Mohammed Deif, the Islamic militant 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’ 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 cease-fire proposal.

“It’s clear the Israelis are not interested in the cease-fire. 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 cease-fire 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 cease-fire talks.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “condemns in the strongest terms” the break in the cease-fire and reminded both sides of their responsibility to not let the situation worsen, spokesman Stefane Dejarric said in a statement.

Egyptian security officials said Egypt was still pressing the two sides to agree on a cease-fire. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

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 militant 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 has claimed the number of militants killed was much higher, and it blames Hamas for causing civilian casualties by staging attacks from residential areas. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers, two Israeli civilians and a guest worker have also been killed.

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.

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 and 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’ 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. Yet some held out hope that the Egyptians would still succeed.

“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 needs to show the people of Gaza that the enormous sacrifices they endured in the fighting were not in vain.

In an apparent attempt to pressure Hamas, Egypt said early Monday it would co-host an international fundraising conference for Gaza — but only if a deal is reached first.

That appears to play into the hands of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, which is eager to regain control of Gaza.

The disagreements have focused around the lifting of the blockade, with Hamas pushing for far more dramatic concessions than Israel is willing to offer.

The Gaza blockade has greatly limited the movement of Palestinians in and out of the territory of 1.8 million people, restricted the flow of goods into Gaza and blocked virtually all exports.

Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent arms smuggling, but critics say the measures have amounted to collective punishment.

The latest round of Gaza fighting was precipitated by massive Israeli arrests of Hamas members in the West Bank in the aftermath of the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in June. Their deaths were followed by the slaying of a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem in what was a likely revenge attack.

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