Hamas threatens to break ceasefire after Israeli air strikes
Israel and Hamas were on the brink of war last night as a senior member of the Islamic movement hinted that it would stop observing a 20-month-old ceasefire in retaliation for the latest Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, the career of Moshe Katsav, the president of Israel and moral figurehead of the Jewish state, hung in the balance last night as police recommended that he face rape charges for alleged sexual assaults on female members of his staff.
The Israeli military insisted that it would carry on targeting Hamas, after what it described as clear evidence that the movement was smuggling weapons into Gaza to mount cross-border attacks.
After a series of raids by Israel over the past four days in which 22 Palestinians, mostly Hamas members, died, Atef Idwan, a minister in the Hamas government, said Israel's offensive showed the ceasefire was effectively over.
"Which is better – to respond to the Israeli aggression or not to respond?" asked Mr Idwan, who serves as minister for refugee affairs. "Which is better – to defend yourself or surrender to the enemy? The ceasefire should be bilateral but what we see now shows Israel has never committed to a ceasefire."
Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defence official, accused Hamas of smuggling weapons into Gaza to try to turn the small scrap of land crowded with 1.4 million Palestinians into a "second Lebanon".
"Our policy is clear – we will deploy all our efforts to prevent rocket firings and this contraband," he said, indicating that this would include "ground and air attacks on terrorists and their infrastructure".
"Hamas, which is reinforcing itself, constitutes a threat to Israel's security," he said. "Our priority is to make it more difficult for the continuation of terrorism."
The latest deaths happened as Israel mounted armed incursions into Gaza, apparently targeting members of Hamas. Israeli attack helicopters targeted Hamas fighters but several civilians, including at least one woman and three children, died in the crossfire.
Hamas militants have so far responded at a relatively low level, firing home-made Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israel without any reports of injuries. While this is likely to provoke further Israeli military reaction, it would be far worse if Hamas returned to using suicide bombings.
No such attacks have taken place since the leadership agreed to observe the ceasefire negotiated in February last year.
Mr Iswan said that while his side had largely observed the ceasefire, Israel has continued to mount operations against Palestinian targets. "Israel asked others to ask for the ceasefire, but Israel has never stopped its crime against the Palestinian people," he said.
"The Palestinian people should defend himself. Israel is beating us badly, that is true, but that does not mean we should not respond." Human rights groups have reported that Israel has killed more than 230 Palestinians, including scores of civilians, since it launched Operation Summer Rains in the summer. Two Israeli soldiers, including one killed by so-called friendly fire, have died in the same period.
Israel argues that the large number of Palestinian fatalities resulted from operations it carried out after the capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit by Palestinian militants in June.
As the ceasefire appeared increasingly fragile, Israel's president faced calls to resign after the country's police surprised many by announcing that there is evidence to charge Mr Katsav with rape.
Earlier, police sources had indicated that the president, who is married with five children and six grandchildren, was likely only to face a charge of sexual harassment.
Israeli police said in a statement: "There is sufficient evidence indicating that in several cases... the president carried out acts of rape, forced sexual acts, sexual acts without consent and sexual harassment."
The police recommendation was passed to Menachem Mazuz, the Israeli attorney general, who is expected to make the final decision on whether to press charges in about four weeks.
Any such charges would cause a constitutional conundrum as Mr Katsav, 60, enjoys immunity from criminal prosecution in his capacity as Israel's head of state. For any prosecution to proceed, he would have to stand down as president.
Mr Katsav vehemently denies all the allegations, and has said he is the victim of a "witch hunt".
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