Israel-Hamas Peace (Quietly) at Hand?

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Suhaib Salem / Reuters

Palestinians react during the funeral of senior al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades commander Baha Abu Jarad in northern Gaza May 13, 2007.

It was certainly a noisy prelude to a cease-fire: Just as an Israeli envoy was flying to Cairo on Thursday to negotiate a long-delayed truce with the Palestinian militants of Hamas, a huge explosion rocked a building in Gaza.

Hamas charged that the blast that killed eight people and wounded 40 others had been caused by an Israeli rocket strike, and the militants sprayed over 50 mortar shells and missiles into southern Israel. Later, however, Hamas sheepishly admitted that the Gaza blast had been "an explosion", or what the Israelis term "a work accident" — when militants blow themselves up while handling explosives in preparation for mounting an attack.

Despite Thursday's lethal fireworks, both Israeli and Palestinian sources expect that by the middle of next week, a temporary truce between Israel and Hamas brokered by Egypt may go into effect. It won't be announced as such — Israel is squeamish about officially striking a deal with what it deems a terrorist group — but if it goes ahead, Hamas will strong-arm its own fighters and those belonging to Islamic Jihad into halting the barrage of rockets aimed at the farming communities and towns of southern Israel. In exchange, Israel is expected to refrain from targeted killings of Hamas operatives, and will hold off on mounting any major assault into Gaza. Israel will also commit itself to gradually lifting the blockade on goods reaching Gaza's besieged inhabitants.

Israel is still pressing for the accord to include the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas for almost two years now since his capture on the Israeli side of the boundary with Gaza, but Hamas sources say negotiations over Shalit's freedom will start later. The militants are demanding that Shalit be traded for "over 400" Palestinians being held in Israeli jails. So far, Israel is refusing, saying it will only release around 70 prisoners who were not involved in deadly attacks.

So why is Israel dealing with Hamas? Because its army generals have told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that a major offensive into Gaza could last weeks or even months and would very likely cause heavy casualties among Palestinians and Israelis soldiers — but would probably not stop rockets from being fired. And Olmert's priority is to stop the rockets from Gaza.

But the Prime Minister faces opposition from within his own cabinet to a deal with Hamas. Transport Minister and former army chief Shaul Mofaz wants Israel to invade Gaza, though his remarks are widely viewed as an effort to position himself as a tough-guy successor to Olmert as leader of the centrist Kadima party. Hamstrung by a possible indictment on corruption charges, Olmert faces a rising chorus in the media and in the Knesset demanding his resignation.

Inside Gaza, Hamas is preparing for battle if the cease-fire talks fail. Its fighters are on red alert, and its commanders, many trained in Syria and Iran, are laying plans to ambush Israeli forces in Gaza City's warren of lanes and refugee camps. One Hamas official also boasted to TIME that the militia had "surprises" waiting for Israel, hinting that these might include longer-range rockets and surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting down helicopters.

The Bush Administration and the Israelis have long argued that talking with Hamas would undermine support for moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But Palestinians in Ramallah say that Abbas, after initially opposing the Egyptian-sponsored talks, is now wagering that a cease-fire — however short-lived — may be inevitable, and he wants to be a part of it. "That's why Abbas, all of a sudden, is pushing unity talks with Hamas," says one Palestinian official. In other words, Abbas has to get back in the game. So does Olmert. And whether the cease-fire is official or not, it will be a boost for Hamas, now celebrating the first year anniversary of its armed take-over of Gaza.

With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Ramallah