Israel hits Gaza, suspends Cairo talks after rocket fire

Mai Yaghi

Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Israel and Palestinian militants resumed fire across the Gaza border on Tuesday, sparking panic across the war-torn enclave where residents fled for cover as Israeli aircraft struck.

A military spokeswoman told AFP that two rockets hit southern Israel during the late afternoon and early evening -- several hours before a 24-hour truce was to expire -- and two more were intercepted by missile defences.

Israel ordered its negotiators back from ceasefire talks in Cairo and the military said warplanes hit Gaza. They hit at least 10 targets, according to army radio.

The fighting shattered nine days of relative quiet in the skies over Gaza and cast a dark shadow over Egyptian-mediated efforts to hammer out a longer-term truce.

The chief Palestinian negotiator in Cairo said on Tuesday that no progress had been made.

The Palestinian delegation presented their demands for a truce to Egyptian mediators and were awaiting Israel's response, said the official, Azzam al-Ahmed.

"There has been no progress," he said of Tuesday's talks. "Matters have become more complicated."

The renewal of Israeli strikes spread panic among Gaza residents.

An AFP reporter saw hundreds of Palestinians streaming out of Shejaiya, an eastern area of Gaza City which has been devastated by more than a month of fighting between Israel and the militant Islamist Hamas movement.

More poured out of the Zeitun and Shaaf areas, alarmed by a series of explosions and heading to shelter in UN schools, local witnesses said.

Five Palestinians were wounded, three in the northern area of Beit Lahiya -- two of them children -- and two boys aged six and nine in the southern city of Rafah, the Gaza emergency services spokesman said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for firing the rockets, two of which hit near the city of Beersheva, which is home to around 200,000 Israelis.

An Israeli official said the negotiating team had been ordered back from Cairo where Egypt has been pushing for a decisive end to the Gaza bloodshed, which has killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and 67 on the Israeli side.

However, there was no immediate confirmation the team had left.

"The Cairo process was based on the premise of a total ceasefire," another official told AFP. "If Hamas fires rockets, the Cairo process has no basis."

Israel has vowed not to negotiate under fire, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned there would be "a very strong response" to any resumption of rocket attacks.

Hamas dismissed his remarks as having "no weight".

- 'Sabotaging the talks' -

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri denied the Islamist movement had fired rockets over the border Tuesday, accusing Israel of trying to sabotage the truce talks.

"We don't have any information about firing rockets from Gaza. The Israeli raids are intended to sabotage the negotiations in Cairo," he told AFP.

The talks in Cairo centre on an Egyptian proposal that meets some of the Palestinian demands, such as easing Israel's eight-year blockade on Gaza, but puts off debate on other thorny issues until later.

Although temporary truce agreements have brought relief to millions on both sides of the border, the drawn-out waiting and fear of an all-out resumption of fighting has tested people's patience.

"No one here has any hope," said Riyad Abul Sultan, a father of 10 with thick curly hair, smoking as he sat on a flimsy mattress at a UN school in Gaza.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, renewed its appeal for access to Gaza.

"Valuable time has already been lost and it is essential that human rights organisations are now able to begin the vital job of examining allegations of war crimes," it said.

The Palestinians say agreement over a long-term arrangement in Gaza has been delayed by Israeli foot-dragging over key issues.

Israel wants Gaza demilitarised although the subject does not figure in the Egyptian proposal as seen by AFP.

- Hamas shift -

Hamas had repeatedly warned it would not extend the temporary ceasefire again, pressing for immediate gains that would allow it to claim concessions from Israel after the devastating war, which began on July 8.

Egypt's proposal calls for both sides to immediately cease fire and includes provisions relating to opening the borders to allow for free movement of people, goods and construction materials, as well as a clause on regulating the economic crisis within the impoverished enclave.

But crucially, it postpones discussions on issues such as a port and airport for another month, until "after calm and stability returns," along with talks over exchanging the remains of two Israeli soldiers for the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Meanwhile, Jordan's national carrier confirmed Tuesday it had resumed flights to Tel Aviv after suspending them for a month due to rocket fire near the runway of Israel's main airport.

Royal Jordanian, which operates 20 flights a week to Tel Aviv, said it resumed normal operations on Sunday.

The rocket strike had prompted major US and European airlines to halt flights to Israel for several days in July over safety fears.