When Palestinian militants this week laid down their terms for a cease-fire with the Israelis an end to Israeli military operations in Gaza and in the West Bank, and the re-opening of borders into the besieged Mediterranean strip it wasn't long before the Israelis responded.
In Bethlehem on Wednesday evening, Israeli agents disguised as Arabs and driving a car with a Palestinian license plate ambushed and killed four suspected militants, including a senior commander of Islamic Jihad. Israeli intelligence sources told TIME that the assassination was designed to prevent an alleged suicide attack that the Islamic Jihad commander had been planning, and to signal to Palestinian militants that while the Israelis were willing to discuss a truce in Gaza, military operations inside the West Bank were non-negotiable. The other message: Israel is in no mood to let militants dictate the cease-fire terms, especially after a Palestinian gunman opened fire in a Jerusalem yeshiva on March 6, killing eight students.
Islamic Jihad, one of the participants, along with Hamas, in talks with Egypt aimed at brokering a cease-fire with Israel, wasted no time in trying to avenge the death of their Bethlehem commander, Mohammed Shahade, and his three companions. The group blamed Israel for ending the lull in Gaza fighting, and fired 25 rockets and seven mortar rounds into southern Israel.
Israel, in turn, responded on Thursday with air strikes on northern Gaza from where the rockets were launched.
Despite the latest exchanges of fire and the scorching rhetoric on both sides, however, the fragile truce that appears to have taken hold over the past week is not necessarily over. Hamas, whose arsenal includes longer-range, more lethal rockets, refrained from joining Islamic Jihad in Thursday's retaliatory binge. And Israeli military sources say that through indirect channels an Israeli general and Hamas officials were both in Cairo recently meeting with the Egyptians word has reached former Palestinian Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders in Gaza that they are no longer being targeted for aerial assassination by Israel.
It's a start, and both Hamas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stand to gain from making the cease-fire, or "lull," as it is called by both sides, last a bit longer. An extended truce would give Hamas recognition in its power struggle with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who sits in the West Bank, and it might lead to the lifting of a crippling economic blockade on Gaza imposed after Hamas swept out Abbas loyalist fighters from the strip last June.
For Olmert, negotiating a deal that stops rocket fire with organizations regarded as terrorists by Israel and the U.S. certainly beats the alternative: another air and ground offensive in Gaza that would end up with scores of Palestinian civilians and many Israeli soldiers dead, but wouldn't necessarily stop the rockets. Olmert can also take heart from last month's poll by the liberal daily Haaretz, which found that 64% of Israelis support direct talks with Hamas. The Prime Minister was recently in Ashkelon, the southern port now in the range of Hamas's Grad rockets, and was shown how schoolkids, who have no bunkers, have learned to scurry under their desks when the rocket alarm wails. Olmert must realize that having Ashkelon's children hiding under desks is no realistic answer to rocket attacks and neither is ignoring Hamas.
With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem