Gaza's Storm Before the Calm

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Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty

Palestinian fighters return from their positions along the border between Israel and Gaza City on June 19, 2008.

Just hours before the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas went into effect Thursday morning, a 24-year-old Gaza militant with a death wish, named Yusef, fired a last fusillade of rockets, and made a run for it. He watched the five rockets soar into the sky and streak towards southern Israel. Then, Yusef did a stupid thing: he crept back to retrieve the rocket-launcher. By now, he was in the cross hairs of an Israeli drone, which had spotted him creeping along a wall, under a bough of orange bougainvillea. The remote controllers of the pilotless aircraft fired a missile. "I remember getting hit," says Yusef "It was like my leg jumped up and hit me in the face."

He woke up in a bed at a Gaza hospital. The wall above his head in the intensive care unit is plastered with the faces of dead Palestinian fighters that supporters believe have gone on to paradise. Yusef was nearly one of them, but he survived — minus a leg that was amputated below his knee. Barely conscious, he cracked a joke with his comrades from the Salaheddin Brigades jostling around his bed. "It looks like my leg has reached paradise before I did," Yusef said with a weak laugh.

Four of Yousef's rockets thudded into open fields, but a fifth crashed into a house in the Israeli town of Sderot, leaving its 10 occupants dazed but miraculously alive.

In a crescendo of violence in the hours before the truce took effect, militants fired more than 29 rockets and Israel responded with three air and artillery strikes. Says one Islamic Jihad rocket-man named Mohamed, limping from a piece of Israeli shrapnel in his foot: "We had a busy day. Our commanders told us to fire off as many rockets as we could." Mohammed was injured shortly before midnight by an Israeli artillery shell two minutes after he fired his ninth rocket under a glaring full moon.

It was to stop such rockets from raining down on Israeli towns that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert entered into what his critics decry as a pact with the devil. But many in Olmert's cabinet and among his top generals say this was the only sensible course of action: The alternative would have been a full-blown Israeli invasion of Gaza and a drawn-out campaign that would have killed hundreds of Palestinians and Israeli soldiers — and even then, such an offensive would not likely have dislodged Hamas or eliminated its potential to fire rockets at Israel.

The first step of the Egypt-brokered truce is elementary: They agreed, as of 6 a.m. Thursday, to stop shooting at each other. If that undertaking holds, Israel in several days will reopen the crossings into Gaza. This will effectively end the economic siege imposed a year ago after Hamas seized control of Gaza from the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas. The economic relief will not come a moment too soon: On Thursday, TIME witnessed a long row of men standing shoulder to shoulder in the Gaza surf, as if gathered for prayer. One or two men would wade furiously forward and cast their nets in a wide, swooping arc, and drag them back to shore; not once, in an hour, did they catch a single fish. The sea around Gaza is empty; factories are closed, and over 80% of the territory's 1.5 million residents live on meager food handouts from U.N. relief agencies.

In the next phase, Israel and Hamas will start indirect talks, through the Egyptians, to trade captured Israeli soldier Corporal Gilad Shalit for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Once Shalit is freed, says Israeli negotiator Amos Gilad, Israel will then agree to allow the reopening of Rafah, the main crossing between Gaza and Egypt, as long as it is manned by European Union monitors. Egypt will also undertake the near-impossible task of stopping arms from being smuggled into Gaza; Israelis are worried, with good reason, that Hamas will use the truce to rearm itself with longer-range and more accurate missiles.

This fragile truce has at least one thing going for it: Both Olmert and Hamas need it. The Israeli Prime Minister, who is being investigated for possible corruption, needs to rebuild his image and thinks he can do it by halting the barrage of rockets fired into southern Israel. Hamas needs the truce because, after a year of hardship in Gaza, its public support is wearing thin.

Some Gazans praise Hamas for restoring security by arresting kidnappers and armed gangs of thugs, but others complain quietly that the Islamic militants are ruthless and methodical in curbing other militias and political foes from operating in the Strip. On the other hand, says one Gaza observer, "Hamas can now order the other militias to abide by the cease-fire, which it couldn't do before." All major resistance groups signed on to the Egyptian-sponsored truce.

The ability of Hamas to enforce the compliance of the other militias will probably determine the duration of the truce. Says Ruth Lahava, the resident of a kibbutz in the Negev regularly peppered by rockets, "I'm in favor of the cease-fire, but I'm afraid that the others apart from Hamas will start shooting again, and Hamas will say: 'It's not us,' and then Israel will respond. That's the way it's been for the last 15 years."

On the other side of the boundary, one Palestinian driver was relieved by the truce. "Before today, I'd be worried that an Israeli missile would hit the car in front of me, or that my son would be in danger because he happened to walk by a place where a militant was launching a rocket. So today I'm breathing a little easier." For Gazans and their neighbors in southern Israel, the truce has brought at least temporary relief from the specter of death striking randomly from the sky in the form of a fiery missile. And both sides hope it will last.