Truce sought in Gaza standoff

Palestinians, Israel both have incentives, but serious obstacles remain


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israel and the Hamas-led Palestinian government expressed hopes yesterday of arranging a cease-fire to end their bloody two-week-old confrontation over the capture of an Israeli soldier.

Israeli troops and armor also pulled back from a swath of northern Gaza they had held for two days, although military commanders warned that they could re-enter the area at any time to quell rocket fire by Palestinian militants. Israeli forces remained dug in at a disused airport in the southern Gaza Strip.

The calls for a cease-fire came from Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who is a senior Hamas official, and from an Israeli Cabinet minister, Ophir Pines-Paz, who raised the possibility of a comprehensive accord that would free the captured Israeli and halt rocket attacks by militants.

It marked the second day in a row that a senior Israeli official has spoken publicly of the prospect of some compromise in the standoff over Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was seized June 25 in a cross-border raid.

Both sides have powerful incentives for finding a negotiated solution, but serious obstacles remain to any agreement. With thousands of Israeli troops and heavily armed Palestinian guerrillas in close proximity to densely populated areas of Gaza, conflict could flare again at any moment.

And if the young soldier were killed by his captors, Israel would almost certainly unleash a prolonged and punishing onslaught. Israeli officials say they believe he is alive and unharmed except for minor injuries suffered during the raid, which killed two other Israeli soldiers.

Although Israel appears to be dropping its insistence that it will not trade Palestinian prisoners for Shalit, the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday that the soldier's safe return must precede any concessions on Israel's part. A day earlier, Cabinet Minister Avi Dichter had spoken of freeing Palestinian prisoners as a "reciprocal gesture" if Shalit's captors release him.

One major question is whether Haniyeh has the influence to force Palestinian militant factions who hold Shalit - and who are thought to answer primarily to the Islamist group's exiled leadership in Damascus, Syria - to agree to any deal.

Haniyeh's statement was vaguely worded but appeared to hold out the prospect that Palestinian militants would halt their rocket fire if Israel withdrew troops from the territory.

"If we want to get out of the current crisis, it is necessary to return to calm, on the basis of a mutual halt to all military operations," the statement said.

The Hamas government, broke and diplomatically isolated, has been under increasing pressure since the capture of Shalit. Israel has bombed Haniyeh's office and a key ministry, and threatened to assassinate senior figures in the government.

But in the course of the fighting, Hamas' street following has appeared as strong as ever, if not stronger.

Framing a prisoner swap in the context of some larger accord could offer a face-saving way out for Olmert's and Haniyeh's governments. Hamas is unlikely to defy Palestinian street sentiment and release the soldier without some gains to point to; Olmert would need to somehow justify an about-face in his unequivocal declarations to date that no Palestinian prisoners would be freed.

There has been no direct diplomatic contact between the two sides. Mediation is being carried out primarily by Egypt.

There were scattered exchanges of fire yesterday between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen, including an early-morning confrontation in the Shajaiya neighborhood on the outskirts of Gaza City that left three Palestinians dead. It marked the first time during the incursion that a clash had taken place so close to the territory's main metropolis.

At nightfall, an explosion rocked a house in Shajaiya, and Palestinian medics said a father and his young daughter were killed.

The Israeli military, however, said there was no artillery or tank fire in the area at the time.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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