JERUSALEM (JTA) – While nowhere near coexistence, Israel and Hamas are trying out an accommodation of sorts with an Egyptian-brokered truce in the Gaza Strip.
The deal came into effect at dawn Thursday and appeared to be holding despite an 11th-hour flurry of cross-border violence.
Hamas expects a letup in Israeli attacks and an easing of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, which was designed to weaken support for Hamas among the strip’s 1.5 million, mostly aid-dependent Palestinians.
For Israel, the cease-fire means a reprieve from Palestinian shelling and rocket attacks. The attacks have killed 16 since 2004, including three in recent weeks, and raised the pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to order an invasion of Gaza.
The Gaza problem presents the scandal-plagued prime minister with a thorny dilemma.
If Olmert orders a major invasion, left-wingers will go after him and the Israel Defense Forces could end up in the same insoluble quagmire it encountered in Lebanon in 2006 with Hezbollah. But by agreeing to a truce, the right-wing opposition has slammed Olmert for dealing, albeit indirectly, with Hamas, saying it will give Hamas time to rearm and enable the terrorist group to gain legitimacy abroad.
Some Israeli strategists suggest that the Olmert government may have to do both: Try out a truce, then invade Gaza if it fails.
“My feeling is that ultimately we are destined for violent confrontation” with Hamas, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said during a visit this week to the Gaza-Israel border. “But before we send our boys to the battlefield, we have to know that we exhausted other options first.”
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told France’s Le Monde newspaper, “Historically, we are on a collision course with Hamas. But it still makes sense to grasp this opportunity.”
Olmert was unapologetic Wednesday about his agreeing to a cease-fire – a decision that was backed by his security Cabinet last week – and said Israel would resort to force if the cease-fire fails.
“The terrorist organizations that control the Gaza Strip have been under continuous military and economic pressure in recent months as a result of the government’s policies. It was they who sought the calm,” Olmert said in a speech Wednesday, using Israel’s more amorphous term for the truce. “I would like to emphasize and make it clear that we did not hold – and I will not hold – negotiations with any terrorist organization. We have no illusions.”
If the quiet holds through Sunday, Israel is to increase by 30 percent the amount of imports it allows across its border with Gaza.
Hamas, which found itself cut off in Gaza after seizing control of the territory from the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last June, has demanded an end to Gaza’s “siege.”
Hamas’ armed wing, which lost a gunman to an Israeli airstrike just hours before Thursday’s truce began, also has said it is ready to resume attacks. The terrorist group has made no secret of its plan to use the quiet of the cease-fire to stockpile weapons and train fighters.
“It seems that the people who turned a blind eye to the rocket fire on Sderot and continued to turn a blind eye to the rocket fire on Ashkelon will continue to turn a blind eye now if Hamas begins to fire rockets at Ashdod and Kiryat Gat and, who knows, maybe even further north than that,” said Eyal Zisser, an expert at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
“Israel, therefore, is waking up to a reality in which a hostile entity that is not interested in a peace process and historic reconciliation with it has been formed on its southern border,” he said. “This entity is prepared to have a truce with Israel, but similar to the quiet – or, should we say, truce – that exists on Israel’s northern border with Hamas’ twin sister, Hezbollah. It seems that in this case we are talking about a temporary state of calm that is not going to lead Israel and the entire region in a positive direction.”
Hamas refuses to renounce its mission to overthrow the Jewish state, but its leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, the deposed P.A. prime minister, struck an unusually conciliatory note this week.
“Should Israel honor the calm, it will also provide some relief to the Israelis,” Haniyeh told reporters.
Olmert is to fly to the Egyptian resort Sharm el-Sheik next week for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about staunching arms smuggling from the Egyptian Sinai to Gaza and stepping up efforts to secure a prisoner swap involving Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Shalit, who was taken captive two years ago, would be swapped for Palestinian terrorists jailed in Israel.
Shalit’s father, Noam, told Israeli media he felt “cheated” by the government’s willingness to enter a Gaza truce without a guarantee that his son would be returned.
But Israeli officials said Egypt has agreed to hold off on opening its border with Gaza – a key Hamas demand – until there is progress in talks on Shalit’s return.
In any case, the IDF is expected to be ready for a last-resort invasion of Gaza, if the cease-fire fails.