WORLD> Middle East
Israel rules out Hamas contacts, threatens force
Updated: 2009-02-03 08:08

HERZLIYA -- Israel's foreign minister threatened Monday to keep hitting Hamas as long as it attacks Israel, ruling out negotiations with the rulers of Gaza just eight days before national elections in which she is running for prime minister.

Israel's Foreign Minister and Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni speaks during the 9th Herzliya Conference, in Herzliya, Israel, February 2, 2009.  [Agencies] 

Tzipi Livni's tough statement came as a Hamas delegation went to Cairo for talks Tuesday with Egyptian mediators on a long-term truce with Israel, building on a two-week informal ceasefire that followed Israel's bruising offensive in Gaza.

Events Monday underlined the urgency of the talks in Cairo. An Israeli missile hit a car in the town of Rafah, killing a Palestinian militant, hours after warplanes bombed the nearby Gaza-Egypt border seeking to destroy tunnels that Hamas uses to smuggle in weapons and supplies.

The Israeli military said the target of the airstrike was a car carrying militants who fired mortars at Israel. Palestinian officials said a militant in the car was killed and another was wounded, along with two bystanders.

The attacks were retaliation for more than a dozen rockets and mortar shells fired from Gaza on Sunday. The fire decreased considerably Monday, with the military saying that two mortar shells exploded at a border crossing in southern Gaza during the day.

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In Cairo, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the group, which calls for the destruction of Israel, would make its decision about a truce after a final round of talks with Egyptian mediators expected on Tuesday. The Hamas delegation arrived in Cairo late Monday night.

He said the delegation would listen to "the summary of the Egyptian contacts and talks that have been conducted with the Israelis or other concerned parties." Israel and Hamas refuse to deal directly with each other.

In Syria, Mohammed Nasr, a member of the exiled leadership of Hamas, said the group was ready for a one-year truce with Israel in exchange for reopening the Gaza Strip's borders and lifting the economic blockade.

The crossings, Gaza's main economic lifeline, have largely been closed since Hamas violently seized control of the territory in June 2007 from forces supporting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose administration is now limited to the West Bank.

Hamas and Egypt reject outside forces patrolling their border, while Israel is hesitant to reopen any border crossings, concerned that militants and explosives could be smuggled into Israel and weapons into Gaza.

Continued violence could work against Israel's outgoing government in the Feb. 10 elections and bolster hard-line opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seen as the front-runner.

Netanyahu has called for Israel to oust Hamas from power in Gaza. In a speech Monday at an annual security conference sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Center, Livni did not go that far, but she was clear in her refusal to deal directly with the Islamic militants.

Hamas does not accept a place for a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East and has sent dozens of suicide bombers into Israel.

Hamas' Damascus-based political leader, Khaled Mashaal, was in Iran Sunday and Monday where he met the country's top leaders to thank them for their support during the Gaza offensive. He called his movement's most powerful ally a "partner in victory."

Israel and the United States accuse Iran of supplying Hamas with weapons, including rockets. Tehran denies it, but says it does support Hamas financially. The funding has been vital for sustaining Hamas under the crippling blockade.

"Terror must be fought with force and lots of force," Livni said. "Therefore we will strike Hamas."

She threatened to renew Israel's offensive if attacks from Gaza continue. "If by ending the operation we have yet to achieve deterrence, we will continue until they get the message," she said.

Livni called for Israel to pursue peace with moderate Palestinians and Arab states.

"If we don't draft an initiative in Hebrew, it will be dictated to us in Arabic, French or English," she warned.

"This election is about peace," she said, drawing a contrast between her views and those of Netanyahu, who has proposed limiting talks with Palestinians to economic issues.

"The dove is on the window sill," Livni said. "We can either slam the door or let it in. The choice is in your hands."

More than a year of US-backed negotiations between Israel and Abbas' Western-backed government have failed to make discernible progress. The Hamas seizure of Gaza has complicated peace efforts by exposing the weakness of the Abbas regime.

Israel, too, has not been in a position to finalize a deal because of its own political turmoil. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned in September because of corruption allegations, but Livni could not form a new coalition government, forcing the election.