Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire holds

Leaders on both sides try to shore up truce

November 27, 2006|By Richard Boudreaux | Richard Boudreaux,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Jerusalem -- After five months of fighting to a stalemate in the Gaza Strip, Israel and the Palestinians moved yesterday to shore up a cease-fire that both sides had sought as relief from a politically costly conflict that has left more than 300 people dead.

The truce was holding after an uncertain start yesterday, following an overnight pullout of Israeli forces from Gaza. At least seven rockets fired from the coastal territory landed in Israel after the accord took effect at 6 a.m. By 10:15 a.m., the rocket fire had stopped, a silence that continued early today.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas instructed his security chiefs to enforce the cease-fire. Officials said 13,000 Palestinian police officers in flak jackets and helmets were patrolling Gaza's borders to discourage new rocket attacks.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered the army to show restraint, "even though there are still violations by the Palestinian side." He added: "I have instructed our defense officials to give this cease-fire a chance."

The accord, arranged late Saturday, followed months of Israeli military pressure on Hamas. After winning control of the Palestinian Authority in elections last January, the Islamist movement had refused to renounce its hostility toward Israel and had begun stockpiling tons of weapons in Gaza to confront the Jewish state.

Faced with the threat of a full-scale Israeli invasion of Gaza and demands by Palestinian rivals to give up a government crippled by international economic sanctions, Hamas last week authorized Abbas to telephone Olmert with a cease-fire offer and persuaded smaller militant groups to go along.

Olmert, damaged politically by the inconclusive end of the summer war against the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, was quick to accept.

Israel had found itself again unable to deal a decisive blow to an aggressive enemy. After five months of punishing incursions into Gaza, the army could not stop the daily rain of crude Kassam rockets on Israeli border towns, particularly Sderot, where two civilians had been killed in the past two weeks.

"Israel and Hamas, like two bruised boxers swaying in front of each other, were desperately waiting to be saved by the bell," analyst Ben Caspit wrote in the Israeli newspaper Maariv. "Hamas was under pressure from Israel. And Israel was in an insufferable situation; citizens in one town were hostages, and no one could do anything about it."

The truce agreement grew from weeks of discreet telephone contact between Olmert and Abbas, the Fatah Party leader who remained president after Hamas took over the government.

Israel refuses to talk to Hamas but considers the more moderate Abbas an acceptable negotiating partner. Both sides said yesterday that they hoped the truce would be extended to the West Bank and pave the way to a revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that collapsed six years ago with the beginning of the most recent Palestinian uprising.

Before the knotty issues of a peace settlement can be broached, however, Israel wants Hamas to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, whose capture in a cross-border raid June 25 set off the latest round of fighting. And the Palestinians want Israel to release millions of dollars in tax revenue and duties it has collected on behalf of their government.

Abbas has been pressing Hamas to stop firing rockets, free the corporal and turn the government over to a team of nonpolitical technocrats -- concessions aimed at ending military and economic pressure by Israel and a freeze on Western aid that has left the Palestinian government unable to pay its 165,000 workers.

For months, Hamas showed little interest in a deal. It demanded the release of 1,400 prisoners in exchange for the soldier and declined to recognize Israel or renounce violence, conditions set by Western nations for ending the sanctions.

But Hamas' battlefield losses took a toll. Most of the 300 or so Palestinians killed in the fighting were armed militants, including 25 who died over four days last week. The Israelis, who lost just three soldiers in five months, threatened a large-scale offensive to disrupt Hamas' weapons buildup.

"Hamas has been dragging its feet for nearly a year, but now perhaps there are buds of understanding that they cannot go on like this," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said yesterday.

In addition to accepting a truce, Hamas made it known to Egyptian mediators last week that it would settle for "several hundred" prisoners in exchange for Shalit, Israeli newspapers reported.

Giora Eiland, an Israeli army reserve general and former head of the National Security Council, said a truce could help speed a prisoner exchange for which Hamas could claim credit, helping it to fend off pressure to relinquish the government.

"This political aspect of being able to continue their control of the Palestinian Authority is far more important than any kind of shooting," Eiland said. "This truce is the best Hamas can achieve. It serves their interests for now."

Many Israelis were quick to warn yesterday that Hamas might use the truce to continue stockpiling weapons -- as Hezbollah, its role model, did in Lebanon in the years preceding the summer war. Of all the cease-fire conditions, a halt to weapons smuggling from Egypt into Gaza is the hardest to monitor and enforce.

"This fictitious cease-fire will have only one clear outcome: Hamas will use the timeout to regroup," said Efi Eitam, a conservative member of the Israeli parliament.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times

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