JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinian militants in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip launched rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel Monday, despite an unofficial truce meant to defuse escalating exchanges of rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes.
Around midday, a group that had held out from joining the cease-fire announced it would comply. Even so, Palestinians launched two rockets into Israel a few hours later, the military said. They caused no injuries but damaged property and set a fire to a field.
The latest round of violence began with a deadly attack on Israelis near the Egypt-Israel border on Thursday when gunmen who appear to have originated in Gaza and crossed into southern Israel through the Egyptian desert and ambushed vehicles, killing eight people. Six were civilians and two were members of Israeli security forces responding to the incursion.
That touched off deadly Israeli airstrikes and heavy Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza. Palestinians pummeled southern Israel with about 70 rockets Saturday night, killing 1 Israeli and wounding several others.
About 15 Palestinians, most of them gunmen, were killed in Israeli airstrikes.
"Most of those who dispatched the terrorists to carry out the attacks are now under the ground," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Channel 2 TV Monday evening.
A Hamas official said Monday that militant groups in Gaza agreed to the truce to end three days of clashes between Israel and Gaza militants. Hamas security personnel would enforce the Egypt-brokered agreement, he said.
The Popular Resistance Committees had refrained from joining the cease-fire because an Israeli airstrike on Thursday killed several of its senior members, whom Israel accused of directing the border ambush, another Hamas official said Monday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak for the other group.
On Monday afternoon, the PRC told a news conference it would join the truce as well, but a few hours later released a statement taking responsibility for firing the latest rockets salvo, breaching the cease-fire.
The Israeli government says it was not involved in cease-fire talks, but Israeli President Shimon Peres, touring a city hit hard by rocket fire over the weekend said, "If they will cease fire, there will be a cease-fire."
Taher Nunu, a spokesman for the Gaza Hamas government, said all militant Palestinian factions agreed to abide by the truce.
Militant leaders in Gaza were not answering their telephones, fearing the Israelis would be able to locate and assassinate them.
Condemnation of Israel's actions came from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, citing "flagrant violations" and "Israeli agression" in Egypt and the Gaza Strip. The GCC statement Monday did not mention the cross-border attack or the rocket salvos.
A senior Israeli military officer said Israel's newest rocket defense system did not provide full protection from a barrage of Palestinian rockets.
Col. Zvika Haimovitch said the Iron Dome system he oversees picked off four of five rockets in a salvo Saturday from the Gaza Strip. The one it missed killed an Israeli man, he said.
The sudden flare-up in violence also caused new friction in relations between Israel and Egypt, after Egypt accused Israel of killing five of its security personnel along the border while pursuing militants responsible for the frontier ambush on Thursday.
Under pressure from popular anti-Israel sentiment, the Egyptian government at one point threatened to recall its ambassador to Israel. Israel apologized and Egypt recanted.