Will Israel-Hamas Clash Threaten the Truce?

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Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

Palestinians pray beside the bodies of Hamas gunmen during their funeral Gaza after Israeli forces killed six Palestinian militants in a firefight.

It was always going to be the most fragile of cease-fires — after all, Israel and the Palestinian militants of Hamas are sworn enemies. And on Tuesday night, the truce brokered by Egypt last June that has largely stamped out violence across the boundary between Israel and Gaza, appeared in danger of collapse: Israeli troops, backed by helicopter gunships and tanks, crossed into Gaza to destroy a tunnel being dug by militants, supposedly to launch a raid inside Israel.

"This was a must. We had to destroy the tunnel," one Israeli official told TIME. "Hamas was going to use it to try kidnapping more Israeli soldiers." Corporal Gilad Shalit, captured by Palestinian militants in June 2006 during a cross-border raid, is still being held in Gaza, and Hamas is hoping to trade him for hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails. The last thing the Israeli army wants is for Hamas to grab another hostage.

Hamas, the Islamic militants who control Gaza, struck back, lobbing mortars at the Israeli forces and wounding six soldiers. Circling Israeli drones and helicopters fired missiles killing six Hamas fighters, and Israeli forces pulled back, after blowing up the house at the edge of a teeming refugee camp from which the tunnel was secretly being dug. As usually happens after an Israeli attack in Gaza, militants inside the Palestinian enclave responded by firing a hail of rockets, 35 of which peppered towns and villages in southern Israel. Two women were wounded in the barrage, but most rockets fell aimlessly in nearby fields.

As much as the exchange of fire rattled the truce, it may have been ritual bloodletting. Neither Hamas nor Israel wants the cease-fire to end yet. The Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak wants to prolong it because his Labor Party, according to polls, stands to lose more legislative seats in this February's general elections, and a prolonged, bloody assault on Gaza — which would probably fail to crush Hamas — could further jeopardize his chances. (See pictures of 60 years of Israel.)

Hamas wants the cease-fire to endure because it is consolidating the movement's authority over Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians, and because it wants to beef up its fighting corps to over 50,000 strong. Gaza experts say that Hamas has taken a page from Hizballah's playbook during the 2006 Lebanon war with Israel, and that Gaza is now riddled with tunnels and underground bunkers. Hamas is also believed to have smuggled in longer-range, Iranian-made rockets through smugglers' tunnels leading from Egypt. Reviving the truce has a political advantages for Hamas, too: It makes it easier for them to renegotiate a national unity government with President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah movement controls the West Bank. Also, with a new Administration on its way into the White House, Hamas may want to make the case that it is a responsible player worth engaging, rather than simply shunning as a terrorist organization as the Bush Administration has done.

Israeli officials were predicting that unless a Hamas rocket causes major casualties, the cease-fire would likely resume within 48 hours — even as the fighting raged, the Israelis and Hamas were frantically passing messages to one another through Egyptians middlemen, urging a restoration of the truce. As Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai explained, "We are not headed to an escalation. The lull brings peace and quiet to the southern communities, and we have an interest to maintain it." Given Hamas' arms build-up in Gaza, however, a showdown with the Israeli army is inevitable, say officials in Tel Aviv. But neither Hamas nor Israel is in any hurry for this to happen soon. So the cease-fire is likely to be restored — at least, for now.

With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv

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