GAZA CITY — The Islamist Hamas movement said the truce in and around Gaza ends on Friday, ruling out an extension and insisting that it will respond to any Israeli attack.
"The truce will end tomorrow," Fawzi Barhum, a spokesman for the Hamas rulers of the besieged Gaza Strip, said on Thursday.
"There is no possibility of renewing the truce," he told AFP after a meeting with Islamic Jihad and other factions in the Palestinian enclave where violence has already surged in recent days.
Both Hamas and Israel have said they would respond when attacked, but neither has stated it will go on the offensive at this stage.
"We at Hamas have the right to respond to any Zionist aggression against the Palestinian people. It is a national duty," Barhum said, while adding that the Islamist movement would act "according to the situation on the ground."
Israel, which had hoped for an extension of the six-month truce which went into effect on June 19, had no immediate reaction to the Hamas statement.
However, Defence Minister Ehud Barak indicated in earlier remarks that Israel would respond if attacked.
"When the situation requires us to, we will act," he said.
Barak raised the spectre of a military intervention, but made it clear he saw no urgency.
"We are not afraid of launching a large-scale military operation in Gaza but there is no need to rush into it," he told journalists.
Israeli forces conducted several air strikes and killed one Palestinian while Gaza militants fired a barrage of rockets on Wednesday and again on Thursday.
Israeli aircraft on Thursday knocked out two rocket launchers, including one that was set to fire, the armed forces said.
Israel and Hamas have accused each other of violating the truce that was negotiated through Egyptian intermediaries because the Jewish state regards the Islamists as a terrorist organisation.
The Israeli government blames Hamas for not stopping attacks often carried out by smaller Palestinian factions, while the Islamists claim Israel also broke the truce by failing to lift its blockade of the impoverished territory.
Israel responded to a flare-up of violence that erupted in early November by tightening sanctions and closing its crossing points with Gaza, halting deliveries of humanitarian aid and other basic supplies.
Shortages caused by the closures have forced the United Nations to suspend its distribution of food assistance to about half of Gaza's 1.5-million-strong population, the UN Works and Relief Agency said on Thursday.
UN Middle East envoy Robert Serry warned that "a major escalation of violence would have grave consequences for the protection of civilians in Israel and Gaza, the welfare of the Gazan civilian population, and the sustainability of political efforts."
"A priority must be to ensure calm in and around Gaza and urgently improve humanitarian conditions," he said in a UN Security Council brief delivered in New York.
Rockets have rained down on southern Israel almost daily since November 4, and Israeli forces have killed 18 Palestinians in Gaza, nearly all of them militants, in that period.
On Wednesday two people sustained shrapnel wounds and several cars were damaged when a rocket exploded in the parking lot of a large supermarket in Sderot, a city just a few kilometres (miles) from Gaza.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas plans to discuss the situation in Gaza at a meeting with US President George W. Bush in Washington on Friday.
Abbas has called for a continuation of the truce, but his authority has been limited to the occupied West Bank since Hamas ousted his forces and seized control of the coastal enclave in June 2007.
The situation in Gaza, and the divisions between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah party, have further hobbled slow-moving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that were revived under US auspices in November 2007 after a seven-year hiatus.
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