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Israel fires on Gaza militants

GAZA CITY, December 24 – Israeli troops hit three Palestinian militants in the northern Gaza Strip on Tuesday denting hopes that a truce with the territory’s Hamas rulers might after all be renewed.

There was no immediate word from Palestinian medics on the health of the three targeted militants, but the Israeli army said the trio had been hit as they prepared to plant explosives.

"Three Palestinians were spotted by the army near the border as they were preparing to plant explosives along the border near Nativ Asara," an army spokesman told AFP.

"Soldiers immediately intervened. There were exchanges of fire, the Palestinians exploded one of their bombs and one of them threw a grenade at the troops," the spokesman said.

"Our forces hit the Palestinians but we don’t know their condition."

The new violence came as the Islamist Hamas movement said it might be ready to renew an Egyptian-brokered truce with Israel that expired on Friday.

Hamas would consider renewing the six-month truce "if Israel respects the conditions of a ceasefire," a senior leader, Mahmud Zahar, told AFP

The conditions include lifting the blockade of the Palestinian enclave and stopping military raids on the stronghold of the Islamist movement which Israel and the West blacklist as a terror group.

"We demand that Israel respect truce conditions… in particular that it stop all form of aggression and open the border crossings," said Zahar, one of Hamas’ most hardline leaders.

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Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal also appeared to leave the door open to a renewed truce.

"Those who want to talk with us about the truce must address the blockade imposed on our Palestinian people," Meshaal told the Russia Today satellite channel from his base in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

His comments came two days before Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is due in Cairo for talks on the Gaza situation with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The six-month ceasefire that has just ended had been largely violated by both sides for more than a month, and its expiry ushered in two days of escalating violence and bellicose rhetoric.

As the Israeli military carried out air strikes and Palestinian militants fired rockets, Israel threatened to launch a major offensive on Gaza and Hamas warned it would respond by resuming suicide attacks inside the Jewish state.

A relative calm returned to Gaza after Hamas announced on Monday it was holding its fire for 24 hours in response to an Egyptian request.

The overcrowded land of some 1.5 million people has been subject to Israeli sanctions and repeated raids since 2006, when Hamas won parliamentary elections and later participated in a deadly cross-border raid in which militants seized an Israeli soldier, who is still being held.

Israel cut off much movement of goods and people in and out of the territory in June 2007 after Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, seized Gaza by ousting forces loyal to secular Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Aid groups have repeatedly appealed to Israel to lift its restrictions — which at times have seen Gaza sealed off completely — to avoid a humanitarian crisis in the territory, where most of the population depends on foreign aid.

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