Gaza militants fired a Qassam rocket into Israel on Wednesday, an escalation in the fighting that could bring Israeli retaliation and further undercut the Obama administration's effort to negotiate a lasting truce.
“There is no cease-fire,” said Ahmed Yousef, the Hamas political adviser and deputy foreign minister in the Hamas-led Gaza Strip government. He said there could be one early next month, however, shortly before Israel holds elections.
President Obama's newly named special envoy, George Mitchell, said in Jerusalem a cease-fire was of “critical importance.” The former U.S. senator, who arrived in the region Tuesday, held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday.
Twelve days ago, Israel unilaterally halted its 22-day military campaign in Gaza after killing more than 1,200 Palestinians and causing an estimated $2 billion in damage. It threatened to strike back hard, however, if Gaza militants resumed their attacks.
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Palestinian militant groups vowed to hold their fire for a week, but that pledge ended Sunday. Since then, militants have bombed an Israeli patrol — killing an officer along the Gaza Strip border — fired mortars at southern Israel and launched the first new rocket from the northern Gaza Strip.
Israel responded to the roadside bombing by launching airstrikes early Wednesday on the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, which Palestinians use to smuggle weapons and other supplies from Egypt.
As the militants stepped up their attacks, residents across the Gaza Strip braced for more Israeli strikes. The Israeli military is expected to respond to the Gaza attacks, but Israel opted to hold its fire while Mitchell met with Israeli leaders.
Mitchell said that any long-term truce would take hold only if the smuggler tunnels were shut down and Israel reopened Gaza's border crossings to allow the normal flow of aid and supplies into the isolated Mediterranean strip.
Mitchell isn't meeting with Hamas, however, because the Islamist militant group refuses to renounce its pledge to destroy Israel.