Gaza truce begins but skepticism abounds

A Palestinian boy climbs on a destroyed section of the Gazan border fence separating Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip at Rafah, as an Egyptian look-out tower looms in the background. Egypt opened its border with the Gaza Strip to allow Palestinians to return to the Hamas-ruled territory after receiving medical treatment. (AFP)

Guns went quiet as a six-month truce between Israel and Gaza Strip militants took effect early Thursday, marred only by widespread skepticism about its ability to hold.

The cease-fire, which Egypt labored for months to conclude, also obliges Israel to ease a punishing blockade of Gaza that has driven ordinary Palestinians even deeper into destitution.

A day of intense Palestinian rocket and mortar fire and Israeli air reprisals on Wednesday underscored just how fragile the Egyptian-brokered agreement would be.

Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has ruled Gaza for the past year, reported that the Israeli navy fired four shells into the waters off Gaza City minutes after the truce began. But the shells fell about 500 yards from shore and there were no apparent targets in the area, witnesses reported, suggesting the shells might have been fired as part of a military drill.

Nearly two hours into the truce, there were no other reports of fire.

Although each side has expressed skepticism over the other’s commitment to the accord, the hope is that it will avert an Israeli military invasion of the tiny seaside territory.

Tal Mahatzili of the southern Israeli farming community of Nir Oz said she was afraid the tranquility on Thursday morning was “the quiet before the storm.”

“If I could believe our neighbors had stopped their hostile activities, washed their hands at 6:05 [am] and went to the local library to draft a peace proposal, then I would say, ‘Wow,’ and heave a sigh of relief,” she told Israel Radio. “To my great regret, I’m afraid the malevolent activities across the border won’t stop.”

In an email to reporters, Hamas’ military wing declared itself “completely and comprehensively” committed to the truce. But it warned that the cease-fire was not a “free gift to the occupiers” and that Hamas gunmen were ready to “launch a military strike that will shake the Zionist entity state” if Israel did not abide by all its cease-fire commitments.

In the first stage of the deal, which took effect at 6am (0300 GMT), militants are to halt their attacks on Israel, and Israel is to cease its raids. If the quiet holds, Israel will ease its blockade of Gaza on Sunday to allow the shipment of some supplies to resume. A week later Israel is to further ease restrictions at cargo crossings.

In a final stage, negotiators are to tackle Hamas’ demand to reopen a major border passage between Gaza and Egypt and Israel’s insistence that Hamas release an Israeli soldier it has held for two years.

“We in Hamas are committed to this calm and are interested in making it succeed,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said shortly before the truce went into effect. “The ball is now in Israel’s court.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert voiced hope on Wednesday that the truce would succeed.

“I believe there will be quiet in (Israel’s) south,” he said in a speech on Wednesday to philanthropists. But, quickly downplaying expectations, he instructed his military “to prepare for any operation, short or long, that might be necessary” should the truce break down.

A cease-fire in November 2006 lasted only weeks before unraveling.

Egypt acted as middleman for the current deal because Israel, like much of the international community, shuns Hamas for refusing to recognize Israel or renounce violence.

The immediate halt of hostilities is likely to prove to be the easy part of the deal. Israel’s point man on the truce talks, Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad, said late Wednesday that Gaza’s main gateway to the outside world, the Rafah crossing with Egypt, would not reopen unless Israeli Cpl. Gilad Schalit were released. But Hamas’ military wing said on Thursday that Schalit “would not see the light” unless hundreds of Palestinian prisoners were freed.

Israel has balked at releasing some of the militants Hamas wants released because they were involved in fatal attacks on Israelis.

Rafah was snapped shut after Hamas violently wrested control of Gaza a year ago from security forces loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who now rules only in the West Bank. Although Rafah lies on the Gaza-Egypt border, Europeans monitoring the passage require Israeli security clearance to operate, and that clearance has not been given since the Hamas takeover.

The Hamas Interior Ministry sent an email to reporters on Thursday saying 260 Palestinians who had been stranded in Egypt after seeking medical treatment there had crossed back into Gaza through Rafah overnight. It said 5,517 Gazans, including students and Palestinians with residency abroad, have applied to leave if Rafah is opened. “We expect very good news in the next few days,” the ministry said – hinting at a temporary opening to allow those people to leave.

Israelis in communities near Gaza have lived for years with terrifying barrages of mortars and rockets that send them scrambling for cover almost every day. Palestinians in Gaza have suffered the consequences of punishing Israeli retribution – airstrikes and military raids targeting gunmen and economic sanctions that have cut off many vital supplies.

On Wednesday, the truce still seemed remote. The military said at least 40 rockets and 10 mortar shells exploded in Israel by nightfall, an especially high one-day total.

Palestinians reported on Thursday that a Hamas militant was killed in an Israeli airstrike in central Gaza shortly before the truce took hold. The military confirmed it attacked a rocket squad, but did not confirm an airstrike.

Iranian-backed Gaza militants have been bombarding southern Israel with rockets and mortars for seven years. The rate of fire increased after Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005 and stepped up further after Hamas overran Gaza.

Israel’s blockade was imposed in an effort to pressure Hamas to stop the attacks.

Khaled Abdel Halem, a 24-year-old Gaza law student, said Wednesday he would be happy if Israel lifted the blockade, alleviating Gaza’s abject poverty. “But honestly, I don’t have much hope that this agreement will hold for a long time. We are not talking about an agreement between friends or brothers. We are talking about a deal between two enemies who wish death for each other all the time,” he said.

Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said on Wednesday that preparations were under way to increase the number of trucks carrying goods into Gaza beginning on Sunday if the truce holds. Only one crossing is currently capable of operating at full capacity because two others have been damaged by Palestinian attacks, he said.

Lerner said fuel shipments would not immediately increase. Israel has restricted fuel supplies into Gaza, causing shortages and forcing motorists to use alternative modes of transportation.

In Washington, White House deputy press secretary Gordon Johndroe was hopeful.

“We hope this means no more rockets will be fired by Hamas at innocent Israelis as well as lead to a better atmosphere for talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” he said, “but for that to happen, Hamas has to choose to become a legitimate political party and give up terrorism.”