GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Hamas is prepared to agree to a cease-fire with Israel that would begin only in the Gaza Strip, a senior representative of the militant group said Tuesday, dropping a demand that any agreement also immediately include the West Bank.
The move marked a concession by Hamas as Egyptian mediators try to halt fighting between Palestinian militants and the Israeli army in Gaza.
Israel regularly carries out airstrikes and military incursions against Palestinian rocket squads in Gaza, a strip of land bordering southern Israel where Hamas violently seized control last June.
While Israel is conducting peace talks with the moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank, rivals to Hamas, the Israeli army continues to regularly carry out arrest raids in that territory, as well.
Hamas official Ghazi Hamad said Hamas has agreed to a cease-fire that "would begin in Gaza, and then move to the West Bank," rather than include both areas simultaneously. Hamad said his group has relayed its position to Egypt, and was now waiting for Israel's response.
As part of a cease-fire, Hamas will demand that Israel and Egypt open Gaza's border crossings, Hamad said. The crossings have been closed since last year except for humanitarian aid in an attempt to weaken Hamas and end ongoing rocket fire at Israeli towns.
Israel has repeatedly said it isn't negotiating with Hamas. A government spokesman said Tuesday that Israel would keep up its military pressure on Hamas as long as the group threatens Israeli civilians.
"Israeli defense measures are necessary because of the ongoing terrorism launched by Hamas-controlled elements in Gaza. If there were no terror activities there would be no need for Israel's military activity," spokesman David Baker said.
Palestinian militants have carried out a series of strikes on Gaza's border crossings in the past two weeks, most recently a failed suicide bombing last Saturday. Militants view the crossings, used to deliver humanitarian aid and basic supplies to Gaza, as symbols of Israel's economic blockade of Gaza.
Hamas often puts forward conflicting messages, partially because of differences of opinion between the Gaza leaders, the powerful military wing and the supreme leadership based in Syria. A cease-fire would require the cooperation of the military wing and of smaller militant groups like Islamic Jihad, which don't always follow Hamas' lead.
The military wing is expected to go along with a decision by the Hamas' political leaders, but by Tuesday there was already internal dissent in the group about what exactly had been decided. A spokesman for the military wing, Ismail Radwan, rejected the idea of a Gaza-only cease-fire.
"We can't speak about a truce in the Gaza Strip, because we said any truce should be comprehensive, mutual and lift the siege, open the borders and halt the (Israeli) attacks," Radwan said.
The shift in Hamas' position came after statements by the group's Syria-based leader, Khaled Mashaal, after a meeting with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter last week.
Mashaal said Hamas would accept a peace deal with Israel, provided it is approved in a referendum of all Palestinians, and also offered a 10-year truce if Israel withdraws from the West Bank and Jerusalem. He offered no recognition of Israel and turned down a request from Carter for a halt to rocket fire.
Amos Gilad, a senior Israel Defense Ministry official involved in the negotiations with Egypt, said Tuesday that Mashaal had offered nothing of significance and that his comments were meant only to give Hamas time to rearm.
"He is unmoving in his stance," Gilad told Army Radio. "Thus every mission that is meant to change this fails."
Palestinians want both Gaza and the West Bank for a future state. The Islamic militants of Hamas rule Gaza, which they seized from the more moderate Fatah group. Fatah officials control the West Bank with a Western-backed government and are negotiating a peace deal with Israel.
Gaza militants have increasingly been carrying out attacks against the border crossings where humanitarian aid is sent into the impoverished territory, leading Israel to briefly suspend aid several times. Hamas has said the attacks are meant to force Israel to lift the blockade.
One of the Palestinian border attacks brought about the dismissal of the commander of an Israeli armored battalion this week.
The military announced Tuesday that the officer's performance during an April 9 attack on the Nahal Oz fuel terminal was lacking and that he would be removed immediately. Two Israeli civilian workers were killed in the attack.
Also Tuesday, Israel announced that it had re-opened the key cargo crossing into Gaza after closing it Friday because of an attack.
While Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, it still controls all of the border crossings but one, which is in Egyptian hands.