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Despite the mixed messages coming from Hamas, senior defense officials believe the terror group will ultimately agree to extend the cease-fire with Israel.
The Gaza cease-fire that Israel and Hamas implemented on June 19 expires Friday. Defense Minister Ehud Barak favors extending the truce and on Sunday dispatched his top aide Amos Gilad to explore the possibility with Egyptian officials.
Hamas officials said that their final decision depended on whether Israel and Egypt would agree to reopen the border crossings to the Gaza Strip.
The announcement came amid reports of divisions among the Hamas leadership regarding the truce.
The Hamas leadership in Syria is said to oppose a renewal of the truce, insisting instead on an unofficial agreement that would allow Hamas to continue firing rockets at Israel in response to IDF attacks on its members.
Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip, on the other hand, believe the movement has no choice but to agree to the extension of the truce. They also believe that an escalation at this stage would play into the hands of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose term in office is set to end on January 9.
"Abbas wants to see Israel attack Hamas," a Hamas representative said. "This will divert attention from his undemocratic decision to stay in power after his term expires."
Khaled Mashaal, the Damascus-based leader of Hamas, was quoted as saying that the "general mood among the Palestinian people and factions" is opposed to the extension of the truce.
Defense officials in Jerusalem said the split in Hamas was "geographic" and Mashaal's announcement was aimed at pressuring Israel. Hamas was interested in extending the cease-fire in the hope of opening all of the crossings including the Rafah Border Terminal with Egypt, the officials said.
"Hamas in Damascus does not determine policy anymore," one official in Barak's office explained. "The ones who will decide about extending the cease-fire are the Hamas political and military commanders in Gaza."
Mashaal accused Israel of violating the terms of the truce by continuing its "aggression" against the Palestinians.
Despite Mashaal's statements, a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip said it was highly unlikely that his movement would reject a renewal of the truce. Hamas was not interested in a major confrontation with Israel "at this stage," the official said.
The IDF Southern Command has been on high alert in recent weeks ahead of the expiration of the cease-fire. Military sources said that if Hamas decided to end the truce and escalate attacks against Israel, the IDF would be prepared to respond.
"We have used the cease-fire to train and get ready for a conflict with Hamas," one military source said. "We are ready."
The Prime Minister's Office, meanwhile, was careful not to get into the dueling Hamas positions over an extension of the "security calm."
"Israel wants to see calm prevail in the South," said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev. "Israel has been ready, and continues to be ready, to abide by our understandings with the Egyptians, but it is clear that this cannot be unilateral, and that if rockets are being launched every day against Israeli civilians from Gaza, then that is not calm."
Although the situation in Gaza was brought up in Sunday's cabinet meeting, there was no full-blown discussion about the situation. Vice Premier Haim Ramon took Barak to task for sending Gilad to Cairo to discuss renewing the cease-fire before bringing the issue to the cabinet for approval.
Ramon, according to participants in the meeting, said he didn't want a situation to be created where the government would be presented with a "fait accompli" regarding the extension of the cease-fire.
Barak responded that Gilad was in Egypt for routine discussions, and that an extension would not be agreed on without the government's approval.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, meanwhile, continued with her hawkish pronouncements regarding the situation in the South, telling the visiting Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger that Israel could not continue to let the Gaza Strip be controlled by Hamas.
"Every rocket from Gaza will obligate us to respond to protect our citizens," Livni said. "There is no calm if that means rocket fire in our direction."
Livni said that if Hamas continued its terrorism, Israel would respond with the means at its disposal. "The government is responsible for its citizens," she said. "The state can and needs to provide an answer to terrorism against it through the military means at its disposal. We cannot continue to leave Gaza under Hamas control."