JERUSALEM – Israeli and Palestinian officials floated a ceasefire on Sunday to end an upsurge of violence in Gaza, as Israel warned of a still stronger response if rocket fire from the coastal strip continues.
Speaking shortly after a rocket fired from Gaza struck near the southern city of Ashkelon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that any further attacks would be dealt with harshly.
“If the criminal attacks against the Israeli military and civilians continue, Israel will respond with even more force,” he told reporters at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting.
But both Israeli and Palestinian officials expressed support for a potential ceasefire, after days of rocket fire and retaliatory Israeli air raids that killed at least 18 people in Gaza.
The flare-up came after an anti-tank missile fired from Gaza hit an Israeli school bus on Thursday, wounding two people, one of them critically.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel was ready to end the confrontation, if Hamas and other armed groups stopped firing.
“If they cease firing, we’ll cease firing,” he said, reacting to reports that the political wing of the Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza, was ready for a truce.
“We will act along the lines of what happens on the ground,” added Barak, who indefinitely postponed a trip to Washington as violence escalated around the territory where Israel fought a devastating 22-day conflict in December 2008-January 2009.
It was the first time that an Israeli minister had floated the possibility of a ceasefire since deadly clashes with the Palestinians broke out.
Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza had previously announced a unilateral truce that unravelled before it had a chance to take hold, with militants firing dozens of rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel.
But on Saturday, a senior Israeli security official said Hamas’s political wing had asked Israel for a ceasefire.
“The political branch of Hamas has sent a message asking for an Israeli ceasefire” in exchange for a halt to Palestinian attacks, the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said on Sunday that the group would be willing to stop firing if Israel announced a ceasefire.
“The ball is in the court of the occupation,” Abu Zuhri told AFP. “Our message to the occupation is that a truce will be met with a truce.
“We are not interested in escalation and the Palestinian factions are defending themselves and the Palestinian people in the face of Israeli escalation,” he said.
Rockets and mortar rounds fired from Gaza continued to hit Israeli territory on Sunday, with a rocket believed to be an industrially manufactured Grad exploding in an uninhabited area near the southern town of Ashkelon, a police spokesman said.
Two Gaza-made rockets later landed in the Eshkol region causing no damage or injuries, a police spokesman said. In Gaza, witnesses said a rocket fired from Beit Lahiya had exploded mid-air before entering Israel.
Three mortar rounds fired overnight damaged an electrical line in the Eshkol region, cutting power to some in the area for several hours, army radio said.
On Saturday, Hamas declared a state of emergency in the face of the deadly Israeli reprisals against Gaza, ordering its security forces to “work 24 hours a day along with the civil defence and medical services to protect and save inhabitants taken as targets by the Zionist occupier.”
The confrontation is the deadliest since the end of Operation Cast Lead, the offensive Israel launched in December 2008 that claimed the lives of some 1,400 Palestinians — more than half civilians — and 13 Israelis, including 10 soldiers.
Militant rocket fire from Gaza has been the first test of Israel’s newly deployed Iron Dome short-range defence system, which the military said has successfully intercepted several Grad rockets.
The defence system, the first of its kind in the world and still experimental, is not yet able to provide complete protection, however, army commanders have warned.
Israeli media reported that the United States has promised Israel $205 million to fund an additional four batteries of the Iron Dome system, which Netanyahu was due to tour later on Sunday.