Hamas seeks truce talks with Israel

( AP ) - Gaza's embattled Hamas leaders are seeking a cease-fire after months of Israeli attacks and sanctions, going so far as to make an unprecedented appeal through the Israeli media, a Hamas official confirmed Wednesday.

The overture, which the Hamas leader made Tuesday through an Israeli reporter, followed an especially bloody day in which the Israeli air force killed 12 militants, including a top commander.

Despite calls for a cease-fire within his Cabinet, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged to continue targeting the leaders of militant groups who fire rockets into southern Israel almost daily.

Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Hamas government in Gaza, reached out to Israel through a reporter for Israel's Channel 2 TV, said Hamas government spokesman Taher Nunu.

Haniyeh spoke of a truce in his phone conversation with Suleiman al-Shafi and said Israel must halt its offensive in Gaza for the cycle of violence to end, Nunu said.

"The occupation should stop its attacks and siege," Nunu said. "Then a truce would be possible, and not unlikely."

Al-Shafi told The Associated Press that the Hamas leader complained that Israeli attacks have foiled his attempts to halt the rocket fire. Islamic Jihad, a smaller militant group, has been responsible for most of the rocket fire out of Gaza since Hamas seized control of the area last June.

"I am always trying to stop the rockets from all factions, especially Islamic Jihad, but Israel's assassinations always catch me off guard and spoil my attempts," the reporter quoted Haniyeh as saying.

Al-Shafi said he was surprised by the phone call and was unable to record the conversation. Nunu said the Israeli reporter called Haniyeh, and the different accounts could not be reconciled.

Israel and Hamas have never had direct diplomatic contacts because of the group's violently anti-Israel ideology. But in the past, the sides have agreed to short-lived truces negotiated by third parties.

Haniyeh was elected prime minister after his Hamas party won a majority in Palestinian parliamentary elections. But in June, Hamas violently seized control of Gaza after routing forces from the rival Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas responded by sacking the Hamas ministers and forming a new government with his Fatah party that rules the West Bank.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Abu Hamza said Hamas had not approached his group about a cease-fire.

"This is not a time for truce," he told the AP. "We have to inflict revenge upon this criminal enemy."

Israel has launched peace talks with the moderate Palestinian president, while sealing Gaza's borders. Abbas has refused to speak to Hamas until it reverses the takeover.

Hamas officials said they also have sent overtures to Israel through unidentified third parties.

Olmert's office wouldn't confirm that such messages had arrived. And his spokesman, Mark Regev, said there would be no negotiations until Hamas recognizes Israel, renounces violence and accepts existing peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

On Wednesday, Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister and military chief, suggested Israel might be willing to hold indirect talks with Hamas to end the fighting.

As long as the rocket launchings continue, Israel will not, "for even one hour," let up its attacks on Gaza militants, Mofaz told Army Radio. But "mediation is something we can think about."

Abbas confidant Saeb Erekat said the president wasn't involved in efforts to renew a Gaza truce, but that a cease-fire would be in the Palestinians' interest.

"We have always urged a full cessation of violence in Gaza," Erekat said. "We have always worked for a total calm. And we are still urging it."

The last Gaza cease-fire broke down in May.

Since then, militant groups have bombarded Israeli communities bordering Gaza with crude rockets and mortar rounds. Although the inaccurate rockets cause little damage and few injuries, they have killed 12 people since 2001, and generate panic in the areas they target.

Israel puts responsibility for the cross-border attacks from Gaza squarely on Hamas' shoulders. Even though its militants are not the major force in the assaults, it allows groups like Islamic Jihad to operate freely.

On Tuesday, Olmert told political allies that Israel would not let up its operations against Gaza militants.

"We will get all those who are responsible for firing rockets. The terror organizations feel this and will feel this in full force in the near future," told members of his Kadima Party in Jerusalem. "This war will not end."

The four airstrikes that began late Monday and stretched into Tuesday morning were the most intensive aerial operation against Gaza militants since Hamas overran the territory.

Among the dead were Majed Harazin, Islamic Jihad's charismatic military commander for Gaza and the West Bank, and master rocket-maker Karim al-Dahdouh.

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