A Shaky Gaza Truce Gives Both Sides a Welcome Respite

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It may go down on record as the briefest of cease-fires: Less than an hour after a 6 a.m. Sunday truce was to go into effect between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in the Gaza strip, three rockets went thudding into empty fields in Israel. Nobody was hurt, but it was a sign that once again, the Palestinian authorities can make all the promises they want, but they cannot bring Gaza’s armed militant groups to heel.

Israel acted with restraint, treating the trio of rockets as a few early hiccups in the cease-fire process. Says Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin: "Let's hope that's just the problems of the beginning. But if Israel is attacked, we will respond. If there are Palestinian factions that are not part of the cease-fire, it's hard to see how the cease-fire will hold."

The cease-fire was hammered out between the Palestinian Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh, a leader of Hamas, and various armed militant groups that have been peppering Israeli territory around the Gaza strip with rocket fire. Over the last four months, Israeli forces have launched one offensive after another into Gaza, killing hundreds of Palestinian militants and civilians, but the rockets kept crashing into Israel.

Once Haniyeh had secured the militants’ accord, he notified Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who passed on the offer to the Israelis. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was told that if he pulled troops out of Gaza, the Palestinian militants would halt their rocket fire. For Palestinians and Israelis, the truce offered a respite from a brutal and inconclusive mess in Gaza. In last week’s offensive, over 30 tanks rolled into Gaza, and Israeli forces used aircraft to fire missiles killing suspected Palestinian commanders. The Palestinians tried to counter this assault by sending a swarm of civilians to the house of a militant commander who was the intended target of Israeli air strikes. Faced with the prospect of killing so many Palestinian civilians, the Israeli planes veered away. At one Israeli checkpoint, a Palestinian grandmother belted with explosives blew herself up and only lightly injured her intended victims, the Israeli sentries. In a video filmed earlier, the suicidal granny had claimed she had been driven to such a desperate act because Israelis had killed one of her sons and destroyed her house.

On Saturday, after the Israeli Prime minister agreed to Abbas’ proposal, tanks began rumbling out of Gaza ahead of the 6 a.m. Sunday deadline.

But fighters from Haniyeh’s own militant wing of Hamas and from Islamic Jihad broke the cease-fire, claiming that Israel had not pulled all of its forces out of Gaza before the deadline — a claim denied by the Israelis — and because Israel had arrested a senior Hamas commander in the West Bank.

Not all Israelis agree with Olmert’s truce. On Sunday, Israeli security officials warned in the media that Palestinian militants might use the cease-fire to re-arm themselves in Gaza. Still, Olmert is hoping that if he and the Palestinians can make a truce stick, the two enemies may build up trust to hammer out a deal swapping an Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, kidnapped on June 25 in Gaza, for hundreds of Palestinians inside Israeli jails.