JERUSALEM – A senior member of Gaza's ruling Hamas movement on Sunday made a rare appeal to the Israeli public for a halt to the escalating cross-border fighting, telling an Israeli radio station in fluent Hebrew that Hamas is ready to stop its rocket fire if Israel ends its attacks on Gaza.
As nightfall approached, Gaza militants had fired about 10 rockets and mortar shells at Israel, police said, but Israel had not hit back.
At a late afternoon meeting of Israel's Security Cabinet, made up of senior ministers, the military was told to "continue to operate against terrorists in order to stop the (rocket) fire on Israel."
Hamas' deputy foreign minister, Ghazi Hamad, delivered the message to state-run Israel Radio. "We are interested in calm but want the Israeli military to stop its operations," Hamad said in Hebrew.
Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, but Hamad and other leaders of the Islamic militant group learned Hebrew during time spent in Israeli prisons.
Other Hamas officials said they were in touch with mediators in hopes of restoring calm.
Israeli leaders sent mixed messages Sunday.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said if militants in Hamas-ruled Gaza cease their attacks, so would Israel.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a more combative tack. "If the attacks on Israeli citizens and soldiers continue, the response will be far harsher" than it has been, Netanyahu told his Cabinet.
Arab League leader Amr Moussa called on the U.N. to impose a no-fly zone over Gaza to protect Palestinians. Arab League support for a no-fly zone over Libya was crucial in its imposition there. It was unlikely the world body would take such drastic action against Israel in light of the Hamas rocket attacks.
The violence escalated a week ago when an Israeli airstrike killed three Hamas militants who Israel said were planning a cross-border kidnapping. On Thursday, Hamas militants fired a guided anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus, wounding the two people on board, including a teenage boy who was critically hurt.
Since Thursday, Palestinians fired more than 120 rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel, prompting Israeli reprisals that have killed 19 Palestinians, including six civilians, and wounded 65 others. It has been the most intense fighting between Israel and Gaza militants since a major Israeli offensive in the Palestinian territory ended in January 2009.
While neither side appears interested in all-out war, the fear is that an isolated incident could easily spark an Israeli offensive because of the combustible situation that has developed over the past month.
Mohammed Awad, Hamas' foreign minister, told the group's Al-Quds TV station that there was a "sustained effort" to halt the fighting. "I can say we were in contact with Egypt, Turkey and the United Nations," he said.
Islamic Jihad, a smaller Palestinian militant group, also called for a halt to the violence.
Israel invaded Gaza in December 2008 in an attempt to stop years of persistent rocket fire at Israeli civilians near the Palestinian territory. Some 1,400 Gazans, including hundreds of civilians, and 13 Israelis were killed in the three-week offensive.
Until the recent flareup, cross-border violence remained at a relatively low level.
However, the balance of power has gradually shifted since the war.
On Thursday, Israel first used a new system designed to intercept incoming rockets. The system, Iron Dome, has now successfully shot down eight projectiles aimed at Israeli cities, the military said, though Israeli officials say it cannot provide a complete defense.
Israel says Hamas, meanwhile, has acquired deadlier weapons since the war. It says the group now has rockets capable of striking deep into Israel, anti-aircraft missiles and sophisticated anti-tank weapons like the laser-guided missile that hit the bus on Thursday.