Will the Gaza Cease-Fire Last?

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Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty

Israeli tanks deploy near the Gaza Strip border as smoke from Israeli army bombardments billows from inside Gaza on Jan. 14, 2009

The Israeli Cabinet decided on Saturday night to unilaterally end its 21-day war against Islamic militants in Gaza as of 2 a.m. Sunday, bringing an end to a conflict that has left more than 1,200 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

On Sunday, just hours after the Israeli statement, Hamas announced that it too was declaring a weeklong cease-fire while also demanding that Israeli troops withdraw from Gaza within the week.

After holding talks with European leaders in Jerusalem on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, "We don't want to stay in Gaza, and we intend to leave as soon as possible."

Both sides traded shots after their separate announcements, but Gaza residents say the cease-fire seems to be gaining strength, and Palestinians have emerged from their refuges to assess the damage of Israel's three-week-long air and land assault against Hamas in Gaza.

Olmert told newsmen after the Saturday-night Cabinet meeting, "All of our goals have been achieved successfully. Hamas was beaten." He added, "If Hamas decides to keep shooting, we're ready to strike back forcefully." (See TIME's photos of the violence in the Middle East.)

Israel was facing rising international outrage over its Gaza offensive, in which, according to Palestinian health workers, nearly one-third of those killed were women and children. In trying to root out Hamas fighters, Israel subjected the Gaza Strip, which teems with more than 1.5 million Palestinians, to scorching fire from aircraft, naval gunships, artillery, tanks and troops backed by helicopter gunships.

The Cabinet sources told TIME there will be an interim period "to allow the dust to settle and see how Hamas reacts" before Israel decides to pull out its troops.

Ending the fighting now allows Israel to boast that it has hammered Hamas and restored the Jewish state's military might in the region, which was tarnished by its inconclusive war in 2006 against Hizballah fighters in Lebanon. Israel is also satisfied by promises made by the U.S. and Europeans to provide technical assistance that will supposedly help the Egyptians stop the flow of weapons through smugglers' tunnels to Hamas in Gaza. The U.S. pledged on Friday to help stem the international traffic of arms from Iran and other suppliers to Gaza.

But a cease-fire without Hamas and Israel's mutual consent may be the most temporary of Band-Aids. Inevitably, Hamas claimed that despite the devastation its fight with Israel has wreaked on Gaza, the best the Israelis could do was to slow — but not stop — the barrage of rockets arcing out of Gaza. Hamas' Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh claimed a "popular victory" over Israel. Up until the last minute before Israel declared its cease-fire, Hamas was firing rockets. Five hit the ports of Ashkelon and Ashdod as well as the inland towns of Beersheba and Sderot. And unless Hamas is obliged by Egypt and other Arab states to sign a truce with Israel, rather than following Israel's example of declaring its own, it may be only days or weeks before the Islamists or any of the myriad militant groups in Gaza decide to take revenge for the Israeli assault and again start firing rockets into southern Israel. And that, judging from Olmert's warning, would result in Israel again pummeling Gaza.

By declaring a unilateral cease-fire, Israel can argue that it is not legitimizing Hamas, which it considers to be a gang of terrorists. But even though a few of Hamas' leaders have been killed, along with hundreds of its fighters, Israel cannot pretend that Hamas no longer exists. Even beaten and bloodied, Hamas is still a force to contend with among Palestinians.

The Gaza conflict has raised Hamas' stature in the Arab world and, more important, among Palestinians. In Arab eyes, Hamas is made up of plucky champions — David fighting the Israeli Goliath with homemade rockets instead of a slingshot — while Israel sees Hamas as killers who hide behind their civilians and who are willing to sacrifice them for propaganda triumphs. But if Israel insists on imposing the same punitive sanctions it kept on Gaza's 1.5 million people before this war, it will only strengthen Hamas and fan the Palestinians' hatred toward Israel.

A unilateral cease-fire practically guarantees that Israel and Hamas are destined for another bloody brawl. And once again, the victims will be the Palestinian civilians whose streets and homes in Gaza are turned into a battleground.

With so much blood spilled in Gaza, it will be difficult for Israel to gauge the proper response to another provocation by Hamas. What will happen once the cease-fire begins without Hamas? If a rocket is fired from Gaza and lands in a crowded Israeli schoolyard, what then? How will Israel respond? There is not much left in Gaza to destroy.

— With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv

See photos of Israeli soldiers sweeping into Gaza.