A cease-fire or coincidence of calm?

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet on Feb. 19, 2008, before the surge of violence in the past week.   (Thaer Ganaim / PPO / BPH IMAGES)

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet on Feb. 19, 2008, before the surge of violence in the past week. (Thaer Ganaim / PPO / BPH IMAGES)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – A semblance of a cease-fire has emerged between Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, although both sides deny there is a deal.

After a surge in Hamas cross-border rocket attacks, bloody Israeli ground and air operations in Gaza, and last week’s terrorist attack in Jerusalem, Gaza entered this week with an unusual period of quiet.

Coinciding with efforts by Egypt to restore calm so Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert can press ahead with peace talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the lull quickly began being called a “truce” here.

Abbas told reporters he thinks Israel agreed to hold its fire in exchange for a suspension of rocket attacks from Gaza. “This is the deal we may hear about in the next few days,” he said.

Israel’s Army Radio reported that the IDF was under orders to shoot only if shot at, and that any proactive operations, such as raids and aerial assassinations, would require prior approval by the government.

According to Israel’s daily Ha’aretz, the Israeli moratorium is to last 10 days – presumably until after an impending visit to Israel by Egyptian mediator Omar Suleiman, and after a visit to Israel by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney.

But Israel – which shuns Hamas both for its avowed hostility against the Jewish state and in order to avoid sidelining the Islamists’ rival, Abbas’ Palestinian Authority – was quick to deny there was any change in policy.

“There is no cease-fire agreement with Hamas, nor are there direct or indirect negotiations,” Olmert said. “We don’t know if Egypt reached any deal with Hamas. In any case, it hasn’t received a mandate from us to do so.”

Hamas and the kindred Islamic Jihad largely have stopped launching rockets since shortly after Israeli forces withdrew from northern Gaza last week after a sweep in which more than 125 Palestinians, many of them civilians, died. Two Israeli soldiers also were killed in clashes during that sweep.

Though Hamas and its cohorts have cast those clashes as their “victory,” no one denies they took a drubbing from Israel in terms of men and equipment lost. Thus, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have described their current self-restraint as a tactical hiatus rather than a decision to avoid provoking yet another Israeli onslaught.

“Hamas’ position regarding a tahdiyah has not changed,” the Jerusalem Post quoted Muhammed Nasr, a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, as saying. Nasr used the Arabic word “tahdiyah,” meaning calm. “Any tahdiyah must be mutual and comprehensive.”

Hamas’ terms for such a suspension of hostilities have been that Israel must also desist from security operations in the West Bank and agree to the lifting of the international embargo on Gaza.

Such moves, which would unwind two years of diplomatic strategy aimed at bolstering Abbas after his Fatah faction lost Palestinian legislative elections in January 2005 to Hamas, are unlikely.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said pundits and optimists were reading too much into an absence of fighting that could be happenstance. A top Barak aide, Amos Gilad, was in Cairo over the weekend, yet his talks focused on Egyptian efforts to stem the flow of arms to Gaza, political sources said.

But Barak also broached the possibility of a future cease-fire with Hamas.

“Only when the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip stops, the terrorist attacks are halted and the arms smuggling is substantially scaled down will we agree to consider a truce,” he told Israel Radio.

Ron Ben-Yishai, a veteran Israeli military analyst, said the current calm likely was the result of a spontaneous “coincidence in the interests” of Israel, Hamas and Egypt.

Hamas may well be interested in a reprieve from Israeli assaults in order to rearm and regroup. Should Egypt finally prove effective in sealing Gaza’s southern border, there would be a limited supply of imported rockets for Hamas to use in Gaza, and limited access for Palestinian terrorists returning from training in Iran and Syria.

Olmert’s strategy appears to be exploiting the suspension of hostilities in order to advance peace talks with Abbas, who could potentially use any breakthrough in negotiations with Israel to draw popular Palestinian support away from Hamas.

“Their intention is to dissuade us from the path of peace and harm our security,” Olmert said of Hamas during remarks to a gather of foreign mayors visiting Israel. “There is no chance that they will succeed. The path is difficult, the circumstances are painful, but I have no doubt as to the results. The people of Israel will be triumphant.”

Opposition politicians interpreted the apparent suspension of hostilities differently, saying it looks as if Israel agreed under fire to let things cool off.

“This morning I must sadly extend my congratulations to Hamas,” Yuval Steinitz, a lawmaker with the opposition Likud Party, told Army Radio. “The real meaning of this cease-fire is a victory for Hamas.”

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