June 18, 2008

Israeli Officials Wary of Temporary Cease-Fire With Hamas

JERUSALEM _ A deal announced on Tuesday for a temporary cease-fire between Israel and Hamas raised hopes for an end to months of deadly violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel, but skeptical Israeli officials cautioned that the emerging truce was fragile and could easily unravel.

The agreement on a six-month lull, mediated by Egypt, comes as leaders on both sides are under increasing pressure from their people to end the hostilities. But even a successful deal poses risks, and another round of airstrikes and rocket attacks Tuesday signaled that neither side was scaling back yet.

The deal follows signs that Israel has newly engaged on several fronts with Arab adversaries. But it has been trying to isolate the Palestinian Hamas movement in Gaza, and some Israeli officials fear that even an informal truce agreement could give legitimacy to a group Israel considers a terrorist organization and whose charter calls for Israel's destruction.

Israeli officials also voice concern that Hamas militants could exploit the calm to regroup and rearm.

A Palestinian militant leader warned that his group would only adhere to the truce as long as Israel did, another sign of how little each side trusts the other.

Signaling its wariness, Israel held off confirming the deal as a senior Defense Ministry official was dispatched to Cairo to wrap up details of the agreement.

"What is important is not only words, but deeds," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Israel and Hamas do not recognize each other, and Israel rejects any direct dealings with the militant Islamic organization. But in addition to the indirect talks with Hamas, Israeli officials also have in recent weeks intensified efforts to achieve a possible prisoner exchange with Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, and last month confirmed indirect talks with Syria, aided by Turkish mediation.

The Bush administration, which also has tried to isolate Hamas since it violently took control of Gaza last year, welcomed efforts to calm the situation with Israel, but said any temporary deal would not take Hamas "out of the terrorism business."

"Saying you have a loaded gun to my head but you are not going to fire it today is far different than taking the gun down, locking it up and saying you're not going to use it again," said Tom Casey, the State Department's deputy spokesman.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman worked for months on brokering the Israel-Hamas deal, shuttling between the adversaries amid surges of cross-border violence and periodic Israeli threats to launch a large-scale military offensive in Gaza.

The Israeli government had been under strong domestic pressure to end rocket attacks from Gaza and show progress on the release of a captive Israeli soldier held by Hamas. The militant Islamic group had sought to ease the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip that has made the impoverished area even more destitute.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said the cease-fire was scheduled to go into effect at 6 a.m. Thursday, and that both sides have "pledged to halt all hostilities and all military activities against each other."

The cease-fire, for a period of six months, would suspend rocket and mortar attacks on Israel by militants in the Gaza Strip and Israeli air strikes and raids into the territory. The rockets have killed more than a dozen people in Israel, and the Israeli assaults have left hundreds of Palestinians dead, both militants and civilians.

In fresh violence on Tuesday, Israeli air strikes killed six militants, and eight rockets were fired into southern Israel, causing no casualties, the army and Palestinian medical officials said.

Hamas officials said that other militant factions in the Gaza Strip had agreed to abide by the cease-fire.

Khaled al-Batsh, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, a small Iranian-backed group that has been responsible for much of the rocket fire, said his faction would be "committed to this calm as much as the occupation is committed."

Under the agreement, Israel would gradually ease a blockade that has severely restricted the flow of goods and fuel into the Gaza Strip and allowed only minimal humanitarian aid.

Talks on the release of the Israeli soldier held by Hamas since 2006, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, would also be renewed, and the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip would be considered, Israeli officials said.

The lifting of the blockade on Gaza, tightened after Hamas seized control of the territory a year ago, has been a central goal of the militant group and key to cementing its authority. Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, said that progress had been achieved toward "ending the siege."

According to terms of the cease-fire read out at a Gaza news conference by Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya, within hours of the entry of the truce into effect, border crossings would be opened "partially" for the passage of goods.

Egyptian and Palestinian officials said that if the quiet holds for three days, the Israeli-run Karni and Sufa cargo crossings would increase operations to allow in more supplies, and a week later Israel would begin allowing in additional goods.

Restrictions on fuel supplies, spare parts, building materials and other goods have crippled the economy in the Gaza Strip, with power outages common, along with disruptions of water supply and sewage systems.

Israel also agreed to consider a reopening of the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, the main exit point for the 1.5 million residents of the coastal territory. The crossing had operated with European monitors and Israeli supervision from afar through video cameras, but Israel and Egypt closed the crossing after the Hamas takeover of Gaza.

Israeli officials said that reopening the Rafah crossing would depend on substantial progress in talks on the release of Shalit, the soldier seized in a cross-border raid by Hamas and allied groups two years ago.

Egyptian-mediated negotiations on a prisoner exchange had stalled amid disagreements on which Palestinians would be freed, but under the truce deal, the indirect talks will be renewed after the first three days of quiet. Hamas has demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

Although the cease-fire is limited to the Gaza Strip, Egypt will work to extend it to the West Bank, al-Hayya said, citing the terms of the accord. Israel, however, has insisted on maintaining freedom of action for its forces in pursuing Palestinian militants in the West Bank.

Israeli officials said that as part of the truce deal, Egypt had pledged to take action to prevent the smuggling of weapons through tunnels under its border with the Gaza Strip in an effort to prevent a Hamas arms buildup.

"We don't have too many illusions about Hamas," Regev said. "We're concerned that Hamas would see a cease-fire as some sort of time-out to rearm and regroup for another round."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak sounded a similar note of caution.

"It is still early to announce a calm. But even when it starts, if it starts, it is difficult to assess how long it will last," he said. "The test will be in the execution. But it is important to take advantage of the opportunity."


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