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Hamas softens its stance

Group now might accept Gaza-only truce

Palestinians carry the body of militant Fadi Salem in Gaza City on Tuesday.

Masked members of the Al Quds Brigades, the Islamic Jihad military wing, march in the streets during the funeral of militant Fadi Salem, in Gaza City, Tuesday. The Israeli military said Tuesday it killed three Palestinian militants.

AP photos

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Senior Hamas representatives said Tuesday that the militant group is willing to accept a cease-fire limited to the Gaza Strip, dropping a long-standing demand that the West Bank be included in a halt to fighting with Israel.

It was a significant concession, but any deal appeared distant because Hamas also insists Israel reopen Gaza’s border crossings and Israeli officials say they won’t negotiate with the Islamic militants.

During months of unsuccessful Egyptian attempts to broker a truce, Hamas had stuck with its demand that a cease-fire include the Gaza Strip, which it controls, and the West Bank, which is ruled by the rival Western-backed Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas.

But Hamas lawmaker Salah Bardawil said Tuesday that the group is now open to a truce that “will begin in Gaza, and then move to the West Bank” later. Another senior Hamas official, Ghazi Hamad, confirmed the new position.

Bardawil said Egyptian mediators were expected to pass the offer on to Israel, and Israeli media said Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, was due in Israel next week in connection with the mediation effort. No official Israeli confirmation was immediately available.

Fighting is common in Gaza, with Palestinian militants firing rockets at southern Israeli towns nearly every day and also attacking Israeli border posts while Israel stages airstrikes and ground assaults.

Israel’s military said its forces killed three Palestinian militants who were trying to infiltrate Israel from Gaza late Monday. The extremist group Islamic Jihad said it sent three armed men to attack the Israeli military post at the Erez checkpoint in northern Gaza.

There is far less bloodshed in the West Bank. But the Israeli army carries out regular manhunts for militants there even though peace negotiations are under way with Abbas, saying his government is too weak to be entrusted with full control.

Bardawil said any truce deal for Gaza would have to require Israel and Egypt to open border crossings with Gaza. They have been shut to all but humanitarian aid since Hamas militiamen seized control of the coastal territory in five days of fighting with Abbas’ security forces last June.

Israel is unlikely to open the crossings, however. It fears that Hamas, which has staged suicide attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis and is openly dedicated to the Jewish state’s destruction, would be able to consolidate its rule over Gaza and restock its arsenal.

Yet without the lifting of the border blockade, which has caused severe shortages of fuel and consumer goods in Gaza, Hamas might have a hard time selling its supporters on a halt to attacks on Israel.

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