GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The Hamas-led government on Thursday offered to restore a tattered cease-fire with Israel, several days after calling off the truce to protest a deadly explosion on a Gaza beach, but said the calm would depend on Israel's response.
Hamas said it is ready to put pressure on other militant groups to halt rocket fire against Israel. The rocket attacks have drawn tough Israeli reprisals and raised the possibility of a broader conflict.
"This is very clear for us. We are interested to keep the situation and quiet, especially in the Gaza Strip," said government spokesman Ghazi Hamad. "We have contacts with the Palestinian factions. We are ready to do it, but [only] if the Israeli side has a strong intention to respond positively to the call ... to stop their aggression."
Israel welcomed the gesture. "If it is quiet, we will answer that with quiet," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry.
The Hamas announcement came shortly after the Palestinian information minister arrived returned to Gaza with $2 million in his luggage, the second straight day a senior Hamas official has hand-delivered large amounts of money to the cash-strapped government.
Youssef Rizka's suitcase delivery signaled that Hamas has opened a new front in its battle against international sanctions by taking matters into its own hands — literally. Hamas said all of the money came from private donations, not governments. However, a rebuke from the European monitors who work at the border, and concerns the money could be used for violence, raised questions about how long the practice could continue.
Hamas said last Friday that it would no longer honor the February 2005 truce after eight Palestinian beach-goers were killed in an explosion that Palestinians blamed on Israel. The Israeli army says it wasn't involved.
Hamas fired several dozen rockets toward southern Israel over the weekend, badly wounding one Israeli. But in recent days, there has been a lull in the Hamas rocket fire.
Israeli defense officials said Thursday it appeared that Hamas was serious about restoring the truce, though the decision was likely a short-term tactical maneuver. They said the group apparently had second thoughts after Israeli threats to kill Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and other top government figures.
Despite Hamas' gesture, the Islamic Jihad militant group fired five rockets into Israel on Thursday. Army officials said one person was slightly wounded.
The comments by Israel and Hamas signaled that both sides are stepping back from an increasingly tense standoff. Earlier this week, an Israeli airstrike killed eight civilians in addition to two militants it targeted.
The growing violence had raised concerns that Hamas might resume its policy of suicide bombings, which killed more than 250 Israelis in the four years before the cease-fire.
The fighting with Israel has complicated an already difficult situation for Hamas, which is under intense international pressure to moderate and is grappling with bloody infighting against the rival Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas.
Since the Hamas-led government took office in March, Israel and Western donors have cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in funds to the Palestinians. They have demanded that Hamas, which they consider a terrorist group, renounce violence and recognize Israel.
Hamas has refused the demands, though it has been unable to pay the salaries to most civil servants for the past three months. Instead, it has turned to Arab and Muslim countries for help.
While Hamas says it has raised more than $60 million from Iran and other Muslim governments, international banks have refused to allow the group to transfer money back to the Palestinian areas, fearing U.S. anti-terrorism sanctions. The efforts to carry money into Gaza shows just how effective the Western sanctions have been.
Hamas officials said the money that Rizka delivered Thursday came from private donations and Islamic charities. He returned to Gaza on Thursday from a trip to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and neighboring Egypt. He immediately declared the money to border officials and turned over the cash to the Palestinian Finance Ministry.
A day earlier, Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar returned to Gaza from a trip to Muslim countries with $20 million in his luggage. That money also was turned over the government.
"It's our money," said Hamad, the government spokesman. "This is the only way that we can transfer."
The money is expected to go toward paying workers' overdue salaries. But as VIPs, the ministers do not have to submit their bags for inspection, raising the possibility that other funds are being smuggled in for Hamas. Last month, a low-level Hamas official was caught at the border smuggling about $800,000.
"We hope this money finds its way to the Finance Ministry and not the treasury of Hamas," Mohammed Dahlan, a lawmaker of the rival Fatah party, told Associated Press Television.
Regev, the Israeli official, expressed a similar concern. "The amount of money being brought in by cash is not enough to run the PA [Palestinian Authority] government. But unfortunately, it's enough to keep a terrorist infrastructure very much alive," he said. Whether Hamas can truly survive the international pressure remains to be seen. The sums of money brought into Gaza so far are only a small portion of the roughly $360 million it owes in back wages.
It also is unclear whether Hamas will be able to continue transferring money through the Rafah crossing. After Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last year, the Palestinians were given control over the border in a deal brokered by the U.S. Under the deal, forces loyal to Abbas, who is in a bitter rivalry with Hamas, control the crossing under the observation of EU monitors.
"How long can they continue bringing in money like this? How long can a government operate this way," Abbas said Thursday in a speech in the West Bank.
Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat, a close associate of Abbas, said the head of the monitoring mission had sent a letter warning that the entry of the money violated the border agreement.
"I hope that this will not be the way to facilitate the closure of the Rafah terminal," Erekat said.
Julio De La Guardia, a spokesman for the monitors, confirmed a letter had been sent to the Palestinians but did not divulge the contents.