Hamas No 2 rejects Gaza arms halt



Cairo: Gaza's ruling Hamas will not stop arming itself, the No 2 in the Palestinian group said on Saturday, signalling tough challenges ahead for indirect negotiations between Israel and the Islamist militants on a new border deal for Gaza.

The talks are being brokered by Egypt, which also helped forge a ceasefire deal that ended eight days of Israel-Gaza fighting earlier this week.

The truce went into effect late Wednesday and has largely held. Residents in Gaza said Israel has begun easing some border restrictions, allowing fishermen to head further out to sea and permitting farmers inspect land in a former no-go zone.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy to Hamas' top leader in exile Khaled Mashaal, said talks on a further easing of restrictions are to be held in Cairo on Monday. Hamas and Israel do not meet directly and the indirect talks are held through Egyptian intermediaries.

An Israeli security official has said Israel would likely link a significant easing of Gaza's border blockade to Hamas' willingness to stop arming itself. Israeli officials were not immediately available for comment today.

However, Abu Marzouk rejected such demands.

"These weapons protected us and there is no way to stop obtaining and manufacturing them," he told a news agency in an interview at his office on the outskirts of Cairo.

Hamas officials in Gaza have said they have developed a local arms industry.

Mashaal said earlier this week that the group has received weapons from Iran since Israel's last Gaza offensive four years ago.

Hamas smuggles such weapons into Gaza through tunnels under the border with Egypt.

Israel and Hamas have clashed repeatedly over the years, most recently in the cross-border battle that began on November 14.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Gaza children returned to school today for the first time since fighting ended late Wednesday. About half of Gaza's 1.6 million people are children.

In 245 UN-run schools, the day was dedicated to letting children share what they experienced, in hopes of helping them deal with trauma, educators said.

In a sixth-grade class in Gaza City, boys eagerly raised their hands when asked by their science teacher to share their stories in the presence of a reporter. Mohammed Abu Sakr, 11, said that earlier this week, he witnessed an Israeli missile striking a car and engulfing it in flames. The boy said he had trouble sleeping and eating afterwards and still feels scared.

Thirty-four children and minors under the age of 18 were among those killed in the fighting, said Gaza health officials and local human rights groups. A total of 156 Palestinians were killed during the fighting and 10 died later of their wounds, they said.

PTI