June 18, 2008

Israel, Hamas Prepare to Honor Cease-Fire Agreement

JERUSALEM _ Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement were set to halt mutual attacks across the Gaza border early Thursday under a deal for a temporary cease-fire brokered by Egypt, with both sides expressing hope that unlike previous truce agreements, this calm would hold.

"I believe there will be quiet in the south of the country," said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, referring to border towns and farming communities that have been the targets of daily rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

In Gaza, the prime minister of the Hamas government, Ismail Haniyeh, said: "This calm can bring security and ease the suffering of our people, and will also bring relief to the Israelis if they abide by it."

Nearing the cease fire deadline, Israel added to a flurry of recent diplomatic overtures by offering to also hold negotiations with Lebanon. Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert, said Wednesday that Israel was interested in "direct, bilateral talks" with its northern neighbor over "every issue of contention," including disputed border territory.

U.S. officials recently backed such talks, which Israel has offered before, but Beirut has always rebuffed them in the past.

Under the agreement for a six-month Israel-Hamas truce, Palestinian militants are to halt their rocket attacks and Israel will suspend raids and airstrikes in the Gaza Strip while gradually easing a blockade that has crippled the economy and public services in the impoverished territory.

The deal also calls for intensified talks for the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held by Hamas, and discussions on the reopening of the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, the main exit point for the 1.5 million Palestinians in the coastal enclave.

On the eve of the cease-fire deadline, both sides exchanged blows.

Palestinian militants fired 30 rockets at Israel on Wednesday, and the Israeli army launched two airstrikes at rocket-launching squads, a military spokesman said.

Five Palestinians were wounded in the airstrikes, according to medical officials, and one rocket from Gaza hit a house in Sderot, the Israeli town that has borne the brunt of the Palestinian attacks. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the rockets, calling them retaliation for Israeli strikes that killed 10 militants in the previous two days.

The cease-fire deal in Gaza was accompanied by reports of an imminent agreement between Israel and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah on a prisoner exchange that would return two Israeli soldiers captured in a cross-border raid two years ago. That attack triggered a monthlong war against Hezbollah that ended inconclusively and without the recovery of the soldiers, whose fate is unknown.

The Israeli negotiator in the German-mediated negotiations with Hezbollah met families of the captive soldiers Wednesday after returning from Berlin, suggesting a deal was in the offing.

While the negotiations with Hamas and Hezbollah have not been political talks, the prospect of successful deals between the militant groups and Israel have raised expectations for an improved environment for regional peace efforts.

In Washington, deputy White House press secretary Gordon Johndroe expressed hope that the deal with Hamas in Gaza would "lead to a better atmosphere for talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority."

And Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, told the BBC that as a result of the cease-fire deal, "there will be a different atmosphere that will lead to further steps."

Israel is holding peace talks with the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and indirect negotiations with Syria, mediated by Turkey.

Under the deal with Hamas, Israel will gradually allow more supplies into the Gaza Strip, starting next week with an initial increase to 90 truckloads a day from the current 60, said Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry department that deals with Palestinian areas. Hamas officials said the cease-fire would be honored by other factions in the Gaza Strip.

Nafez Azzam, a leader of Islamic Jihad, said that his group would not disrupt the cease-fire deal, although it had "reservations" about it. But Abu Hamza, a spokesman for the group's armed wing, said that it reserved the right to respond "even from Gaza" to any Israeli raids in the West Bank.

The last Gaza cease-fire, in November 2006, unraveled soon after it was agreed.


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