GAZA CITY, Gaza City (AP) — With a deadline looming hours away, Hamas on Thursday rejected Israeli demands it disarm and threatened to resume its rocket attacks if its demands for lifting a crippling blockade on Gaza were not met.
The hard-line stance, voiced by a senior Hamas official at the group's first rally since a cease-fire in the Gaza war took effect on Tuesday, signaled that indirect negotiations in Cairo over a permanent truce in Gaza were not making headway. It was an ominous sign ahead of Friday's expiration of a temporary three-day truce that ended a month of fighting.
A text message from Hamas' military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, warned there would be no extension of the cease-fire if there was no agreement to permanently lift the blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt since the militant group overran Gaza in 2007.
Abu Obeida, the al-Qassam spokesman, appeared on the group's Al-Aqsa TV station and said Hamas was "ready to go to war again." He threatened to launch a long-term war of attrition that would cripple life in Israel's big cities and disrupt air traffic at Israel's international airport in Tel Aviv.
He also appealed to Hamas negotiators in Egypt not to accept an extension of the cease-fire without an agreement on lifting the blockade. "The resistance is capable of imposing its conditions," he said.
A security official in Egypt said Egyptian negotiators were struggling to bring the two sides closer together, with one official saying Hamas and other Gaza militants were refusing to compromise.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed a tough reaction if Hamas renews hostilities.
"They might reject an extension. If they attack us, we'll respond in kind, as any government would," he told Germany's ZDF television.
An Israeli defense official said Israel would respond "forcefully," and that Netanyahu and his defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, had instructed the military "to be ready for anything." He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
About 2,000 people showed up for Hamas' rally in the heart of Gaza City on Thursday, well below the levels of similar gatherings on previous occasions.
The modest turnout was not necessarily a sign of waning support for the group, but most likely a reflection of the fatigue felt by most of Gaza's 1.8 million residents after four weeks of a ruinous war, as well as anxiety over whether the three-day truce will be extended.
"Our fingers are on the trigger and our rockets are trained at Tel Aviv," al-Masri told the rally.
In the fighting, nearly 1,900 Palestinians, three-quarters of them civilians, have been killed, more than 9,000 wounded and some 250,000 people made homeless, according to Palestinian medical officials and the United Nations. Israel lost 64 soldiers and three civilians.
Hamas, meanwhile, announced that Ayman Taha, a former spokesman for the group, on Thursday died of wounds he had sustained in an Israeli airstrike on a makeshift Hamas detention center 11 days earlier. Taha had been detained by Hamas security in January, though the charges against him were never made public. Before his arrest, Taha had also served as a liaison with Egypt.
He was the first senior member of the Hamas political leadership to be killed in this war.
Cairo has been mediating indirect talks between Israel and Hamas on extending the 72-hour cease-fire that expires Friday morning.
Hamas has demanded the lifting of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade imposed on the coastal territory. Israel has said the militants must disarm first, which al-Masri rejected.
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