Barrage of rockets strikes Israel as bomb shelters ordered open


Hamas claimed responsibility for a barrage of rockets fired on southern and central Israel, including Tel Aviv.

More than two dozen rockets were fired fr0m the Gaza Strip between the hours of 10 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Two rockets landed in an empty area in the greater Tel Aviv area, according to the Israel Defense Forces, and at least two were reported intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. At least four rockets also landed in Beersheba and three in Sderot.

A Code Red warning was heard in Beit Shemesh, located west of Jerusalem.

Rockets were fired from Gaza beginning on Tuesday afternoon in contravention of a 24-hour cease-fire extension agreed to late Monday night just as a five-day cease-fire was expiring.

Earlier Tuesday evening, a rocket struck a shopping center near Ashkelon, causing damage, according to Israel’s Channel 2.

Israel has retaliated with airstrikes on Gaza. At least one child was reported killed in the strikes, according to the Palestinian Maan news agency.

Also Tuesday night, the Israeli military ordered communities up to 50 miles away from the Gaza border to open public bomb shelters in light of the restarted rocket fire.

The U.S. State Department on Tuesday afternoon confirmed that rockets had been fired from Gaza, violating the cease-fire, and reaffirmed that Hamas has “security responsibility” for Gaza.

“We are very concerned about the developments in Gaza and condemn the rocket fire today and support Israel’s right to defend itself,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.”We call for immediate end to hostilities and rocket fire and we call on the parties to go back to talks on cease-fire.”

Israel withdraws troops, 72-hour Gaza truce begins


Israel withdrew ground forces from the Gaza Strip on Tuesday and started a 72-hour cease-fire with Hamas mediated by Egypt as a first step towards negotiations on a more enduring end to the month-old war.

Minutes before the truce began at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT), Hamas launched a salvo of rockets, calling them revenge for Israel's “massacres.” Israel's anti-missile system shot down one rocket over Jerusalem, police said. Another hit a house in a town near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. There were no casualties.

Israeli armor and infantry left Gaza ahead of the truce, with a military spokesman saying their main goal of destroying cross-border infiltration tunnels dug by Islamist militants had been completed. “Mission accomplished,” the military tweeted.

Troops and tanks will be “redeployed in defensive positions outside the Gaza Strip and we will maintain those defensive positions,” spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said, reflecting Israeli readiness to resume fighting if attacked.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the Islamist Hamas faction that rules Gaza, said Israel's offensive in the densely populated, coastal enclave was a “100 percent failure”.

Israel sent officials to join talks in Cairo to cement a longer-term deal during the course of the truce. Hamas and Islamic Jihad also dispatched representatives from Gaza.

In Gaza, where some half-million people have been displaced by a month of bloodshed, some residents, carrying mattresses and with children in tow, left U.N. shelters to trek back to neighbourhoods where whole blocks have been destroyed by Israeli shelling and the smell of decomposing bodies fills the air.

Sitting on a pile of debris on the edge of the northern town of Beit Lahiya, Zuhair Hjaila, a 33-year-old father of four, said he had lost his house and his supermarket.

“This is complete destruction,” he said. “I never thought I would come back to find an earthquake zone.”

Visiting International Red Cross President Peter Maurer, responding to local criticism that his organisation was late in helping some of the victims, said “we were insufficiently able to bridge the gap between our willingness to protect them and our ability to do so”.

TRUCE ATTEMPTS

Several previous truce attempts by Egypt and other regional powers, overseen by the United States and United Nations, failed to calm the worst Israeli-Palestinian fighting in two years.

An Israeli official said that in the hour before the ceasefire came into effect, the civilian airspace over Tel Aviv was closed as a precaution against Gaza rockets, and takeoffs and landings were delayed at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Gaza officials say the war has killed 1,867 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Israel says 64 of its soldiers and three civilians have been killed since fighting began on July 8, after a surge in Palestinian rocket launches.

Hamas said it had informed Egypt “of its acceptance of a 72-hour period of calm”, beginning on Tuesday.

The Palestinian cabinet issued a statement after its weekly meeting in Ramallah welcoming the ceasefire.

The U.S. State Department also welcomed the truce and urged the parties to “respect it completely”. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington would continue its efforts to help the sides achieve a “durable, sustainable solution for the long term”.

Efforts to turn the ceasefire into a lasting truce could prove difficult, with the sides far apart on their central demands, and each rejecting the other's legitimacy. Hamas rejects Israel's existence, and vows to destroy it, while Israel denounces Hamas as a terrorist group and eschews any ties.

Besides the truce, Palestinians demand an end to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on impoverished Gaza and the release of prisoners including those Israel arrested in a June crackdown in the occupied West Bank after three Jewish seminary students were kidnapped and killed.

Israel has resisted those demands in the past.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki said there was “clear evidence” of war crimes by Israel during its offensive in Gaza as he met International Criminal Court prosecutors in The Hague on Tuesday to push for an investigation.

Both sides have traded allegations of war crimes during the Gaza assault, while defending their own actions as consistent with international law.

ISRAEL: DEMILITARIZE GAZA

Lerner said the army overnight destroyed the last of 32 tunnels located inside Gaza and which had been dug by Hamas for cross-border ambushes at an estimated cost of $100 million.

Israeli officials say, however, that some tunnels may have gone undetected and that the armed forces are poised to strike at these in the future.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also wants to disarm Hamas and demilitarize Gaza, after guerrillas launched more than 3,300 rockets and mortar bombs at Israel this past month. Hamas has ruled that out.

“For Israel the most important issue is the issue of demilitarization. We must prevent Hamas from rearming, we must demilitarize the Gaza Strip,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev told Reuters television.

Since the fighting began, several previous truces barely held. Regev said Israel had accepted Egypt's terms weeks before Hamas, and expressed a wish that the truce would last: “I hope this time we see the ceasefire work that's good for everybody.”

Egypt has positioned itself as a mediator in successive Gaza

conflicts but, like Israel, its current administration views Hamas as a security threat.

Besides the loss of life, the war has cost both sides economically. Gaza faces a massive $6-billion price tag to rebuild devastated infrastructure. Israel has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism, other industry, and fears cuts in overall economic growth this year as well.

Palestinian officials said a donor conference to raise funds for Gaza's reconstruction would be held in Oslo next month.

In London, a British minister, Sayeeda Warsi, resigned on Tuesday, saying she could not support government policy on the war. While his government has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, Prime Minister David Cameron has been criticised by the opposition for refusing to describe Israel's military actions in Gaza as disproportionate.

Additional reporting by Eric Beech in Washington, Ori Lewis in Jerusalem, Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, William James and Kylie MacLellan in London, Jussi Rosendahl in The Hague; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Giles Elgood, Editing by Mark Heinrich

Rockets from Gaza still striking Israel after it accepts cease-fire


Rockets fired from Gaza continued to land in populated areas of Israel after its security Cabinet accepted and put into effect an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire.

The Cabinet announced in a one-sentence statement its acceptance of the cease-fire at 9 a.m. Tuesday, the time it was scheduled to go into effect.

More than 35 rockets landed in southern Israel and further inward in the hours after Israel put the cease-fire into effect. Rockets were fired as far north as Haifa and Zichron Yaakov.

Hamas took responsibility for the long-range rocket fired on Haifa that was intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Also, a home in Ashdod was hit by a rocket fired Tuesday morning.

“Israel’s leadership has directed our forces to suspend strikes in Gaza. We remain prepared to respond to Hamas attacks and defend Israel,” the IDF spokesman said Tuesday morning.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement early Tuesday afternoon following a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier that Israel will defend itself if necessary,  despite accepting a cease-fire.

“We accepted the Egyptian proposal in order to present an opportunity for Gaza to be disarmed of its missiles, rockets, and tunnels through political means, but if Hamas does not accept this proposed cease-fire – and this is how it appears at present — Israel will have full international legitimacy for an expanded military operation to return the necessary quiet,” he said.

Hamas reportedly rejected the cease-fire proposal, calling it unacceptable. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told the Palestinian Maan news agency that Hamas was not officially informed of the proposal by the Egyptians or any other party.

“We are a people under occupation and resistance is a legitimate right for occupied peoples,” he said, according to Maan.

Reuters reported Tuesday morning, however, that Hamas leadership was in Cairo debating the proposed Gaza truce and meeting with Egyptian officials.

The military wing of Islamic Jihad called the proposal a “surrender.”

“If what has been circulated is true, this initiative means kneeling and submissiveness, and so we completely refuse it and to us, it’s not worth the ink used in writing it,” a statement said, according to Maan.

Meanwhile, at least five Israelis were injured early Tuesday morning when three rockets were fired at the southern resort town of Eilat. One of the rockets struck four cars, sparking a fire. The rockets were launched from the Sinai Peninsula, Haaretz reported.

Overnight, the Israeli Air Force attacked 25 Gaza targets. In the 24 hours ending Tuesday morning, the IAF attacked 132 targets, including more than 50 concealed rocket launching pads and 11 weapons storage facilities. Among the targets hit was the home of Marwan Issa, the leader of Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

More than 180 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday morning decided not to fly to the area to push the cease-fire following his nine-day trip to Asia and Europe, as he had been considering.

U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro posted on his Facebook page a statement attributed to Kerry: “The Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire & negotiations provides an opportunity to end the violence and restore calm. We welcome the Israeli cabinet’s decision to accept it. We urge all other parties to accept the proposal.”

 

Talks on details of Israel-Hamas cease-fire resume in Cairo


Negotiators for Israel and Hamas are holding separate talks with Egyptian mediators to iron out the details of last week's cease-fire.

The talks began Monday in Cairo. The Egyptian-brokered cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza went into effect last week, ending eight days of Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense against Gaza.

Six Israelis, four of them civilians, and 167 Palestinians, both terrorists and civilians, were killed during the operation.

More than 1,500 rockets were fired at Israel by terror organizations in Gaza during the operation, and Israel said it bombed more than 1,000 terror targets in the coastal strip.

Among the topics to be negotiated are loosening the restrictions on people and goods traveling to and from Gaza, as well as putting a halt to arms smuggling into Gaza, according to reports.

Israeli and Hamas sources would not comment on the parallel negotiations, according to The New York Times. Israel does not negotiate directly with Hamas, which it has designated a terror group.

Gazan farmers and demonstrators have been testing the limits of the cease-fire, entering a no-go zone that Israel established near the border. A Palestinian man was killed Nov. 23 when he approached the border fence with Israel.

Israel, Hamas teams in Cairo for more truce talks


Egyptian mediators began separate talks on Monday with Hamas and with Israel to flesh out details of a ceasefire agreed last week that ended eight days of fighting in the Gaza Strip.

An Egyptian official told Reuters the talks would discuss Palestinian demands for the opening of more Israeli crossings into Gaza – a move that would help end six years of blockade of the coastal enclave ruled by the Islamist Hamas.

The Egyptian-brokered ceasefire came into force last Wednesday, ending hostilities between the two sides that cost the lives of 167 Palestinians and six Israelis.

However, the text of the truce stipulated that issues such as access to the borders, free movement for Gazans and the transfer of goods would be dealt with “after 24 hours.”

Israel imposed restrictions on Gaza in 2006, following an election victory by Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist. The curbs were tightened, and backed by Egypt, after Hamas seized control of the enclave in a civil war.

Some of the import and export limits have since been eased, but Israel still prevents a long list of goods into the territory – including many items needed for construction – arguing they could be used for the manufacture of weapons.

Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar told reporters on Saturday that the group wanted to see the opening of all four goods crossings with Israel that used to operate before 2006.

Only one operates at present, with a second passenger terminal reserved for the handful of Palestinians and foreigners who are allowed in and out of the territory.

The Egyptian official said Cairo would also urge both sides to cement their commitments to the ceasefire agreement.

Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian man on Friday after he approached the Gazan “no-go” border area, apparently in the belief that under the terms of the ceasefire deal he was unable to go up to the heavily patrolled fence.

Alarmed by the prospect of the truce failing, Egypt encouraged Hamas police to be deployed along the border line to keep Gazans away and prevent further violence.

A day later Israeli troops avoided interfering when Gaza farmers neared the fence to tend to their land, and Israel also eased its restrictions at sea, permitting Gaza fishermen to head farther away from the coast than in the past three years.

Israel launched its air offensive against the Gaza Strip on November 14 with the declared aim of deterring Islamist militants from firing rockets into its territory.

The Israeli military also says its soldiers have come under increasing attack from the border area this year, including earlier this month when a jeep was hit by an anti-tank missile.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told an Austrian newspaper in remarks due for publication on Tuesday that “the most important thing right now is ensuring that there are no illegal deliveries of rockets and weapons to Hamas” and “free access and freedom of movement in Gaza”.

Ban thought the Gaza crisis also showed “the status quo is no option” and urged a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks stalled since 2010, though Hamas has had no role in those negotiations as it rejects any recognition of Israel.

Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi; Additional reporting by Michael Shields, in Vienna; Editing by Alison Williams

Report: Palestinian killed, 19 hurt by IDF gunfire


Israeli soldiers reportedly killed one man and wounded another 19 near the fence which separates Gaza from Israel.

Troops opened fire in Khan Younis on Friday after “several rioters damaged the fence and attempted to cross into Israel's territory,” the IDF spokesperson told Israel’s Army Radio.

“IDF forces made efforts to disperse the rioters, and when they refused to leave warning shots were fired,” the army said.

According to the IDF, troops fired at the legs of the rioters who attempted to cross the border. One man who managed to enter Israel was detained and later returned to Gaza, according to the news site Ynet.

The Palestinian news agency Ma'an, which cited witnesses and medical officials in Gaza, reported the dead Palestinian was 21 years old and that another 18 were injured. A relative of the man told Reurters that the 21-year-old tried to hang a Hamas flag on the fence. An IDF soldier fired three times in the air and finally the man was shot in the head.

A top Islamic Jihad official, Nafez Azzam, condemned the incident and said it constituted a breach of the truce as well, the news agency said.

In the West Bank, IDF forces reportedly arrested a few dozen Hamas supporters, according to Army Radio. Four of those arrested are Palestinian parliamentarians, including the Parliament secretary general, Mahmoud al-Ramhi.

Islamic Jihad leaders killed in strike, Hamas’ Maashal shuns stop to bombings


As Hamas' leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, brushed off a halt to bombings, Israeli airstrikes hit a Gaza media center and killed several leaders of Islamic Jihad.

The Israel Air Force's strike Monday evening — the second on the center in two days — killed Ramaz Harab, a top leader of Islamic Jihad's military wing, the Al Quds Brigades. At least three other Islamic Jihad leaders were in the building when it was hit, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Hamas' main television station, Al Aksa, is located on the top floor of the high-rise building.

In Cairo, meanwhile, Maashal said Monday during an hourlong news conference, “Whoever started the war must end it.”

He told reporters that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requested a cease-fire, a claim that Israel has denied, according to reports.

Maashal said there is a new spirit of cooperation among Palestinian factions due to the Israeli operation, which began on Nov. 14.

“Israel is the common enemy. Confrontation with the enemy is our moment of truth,” he said. “We must end the political divide and unite around common institutions and around resistance to Israel. Our enemy cannot be treated with words, but only by force. No concessions should be made with Israel, given the new atmosphere in the Arab world.”

More diplomacy to try to halt Israel-Gaza fighting


Hostilities between Islamist militants and Israel entered a sixth day on Monday as diplomatic efforts were set to intensify to try to stop rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and Israeli air strikes on Gaza.

International pressure for a ceasefire seemed certain to mount after the deadliest single incident in the flare-up on Sunday claimed the lives of at least 11 Palestinian civilians, including four children.

Three people, including two children, were killed and 30 others were injured in the latest air strike before dawn on Monday on a family home in the Zeitoun neighborhood in Gaza City, medical officials said. The Israeli military had no immediate comment and was checking.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was due to arrive in Cairo to add his weight to the truce efforts. Egypt has taken the lead in trying to broker a ceasefire and its officials met the parties on Sunday.

Israeli media said a delegation from Israel had been to Cairo for talks on ending the fighting, although a government spokesman declined to comment on the matter.

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi met Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, and Ramadan Shallah of Islamic Jihad as part of the mediation efforts, but a statement did not say if talks were conclusive.

Izzat Risheq, a close aide to Meshaal, wrote in a Facebook message that Hamas would agree to a ceasefire only after Israel “stops its aggression, ends its policy of targeted assassinations and lifts the blockade of Gaza”.

Listing Israel's terms, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon wrote on Twitter: “If there is quiet in the south and no rockets and missiles are fired at Israel's citizens, nor terrorist attacks engineered from the Gaza Strip, we will not attack.”

Israel withdrew settlers from Gaza in 2005 and two years later Hamas took control of the impoverished enclave, which the Israelis have kept under blockade.

The 11 Palestinian civilians were apparently killed during an Israeli attack on a militant, which brought a three-storey house crashing down on them.

Gaza health officials have said 78 Palestinians, 23 of them children and several women, have been killed in Gaza since Israel's offensive began. Hundreds have been wounded.

GRAVE CONCERN

Ban expressed grave concern in a statement before setting off for the region. He will visit Israel on Tuesday.

“I am deeply saddened by the reported deaths of more than ten members of the Dalu family… (and) by the continuing firing of rockets against Israeli towns, which have killed several Israeli civilians. I strongly urge the parties to cooperate with all efforts led by Egypt to reach an immediate ceasefire,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had assured world leaders that Israel was doing its utmost to avoid causing civilian casualties in the military showdown with Hamas.

Gaza militants launched dozens of rockets into Israel and targeted its commercial capital, Tel Aviv, for a fourth day on Sunday. Israel's “Iron Dome” missile shield shot down all three rockets.

In scenes recalling Israel's 2008-2009 winter invasion of Gaza, tanks, artillery and infantry have massed in field encampments along the sandy, fenced-off border with Gaza and military convoys moved on roads in the area.

Israel has authorized the call-up of 75,000 reservists, although there was no immediate sign when or whether they might be needed in a ground invasion.

Israel's operation has so far drawn Western support for what U.S. and European leaders have called its right to self-defense, but there have also been a growing number of appeals to seek an end to the hostilities.

Netanyahu said Israel was ready to widen its offensive.

“We are exacting a heavy price from Hamas and the terrorist organizations and the Israel Defence Forces are prepared for a significant expansion of the operation,” he said at a cabinet meeting on Sunday, but gave no further details.

The Israeli military said 544 rockets fired from Gaza have hit Israel since Wednesday, killing three civilians and wounding dozens. Some 302 rockets were intercepted by Iron Dome and 99 failed to reach Israel and landed inside the Gaza Strip.

Israel's declared goal is to deplete Gaza arsenals and force Hamas to stop rocket fire that has bedeviled Israeli border towns for years. The rockets now have greater range, putting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem within their reach.

The southern resort city of Eilat was apparently added to the list of targets when residents said they heard an explosion thought to be a rocket, but it caused no damage or casualties, police said.

Eilat is thought to be well out of the range of any rocket in possession of Hamas or any other Gaza group. But Palestinian militants have in the recent past fired rockets at Eilat and its surroundings, using Egypt's Sinai desert as a launch site.

SWORN ENEMIES

Hamas and other groups in Gaza are sworn enemies of the Jewish state which they refuse to recognize and seek to eradicate, claiming all Israeli territory as rightfully theirs.

Hamas won legislative elections in the Palestinian Territories in 2006 but a year later, after the collapse of a unity government under President Mahmoud Abbas the Islamist group seized control of Gaza in a brief and bloody civil war with forces loyal to Abbas.

Abbas then dismissed the Hamas government led by the group's leader Ismail Haniyeh but he refuses to recognize Abbas' authority and runs Gazan affairs.

While it is denounced as a terrorist organization in the West, Hamas enjoys widespread support in the Arab world, where Islamist parties are on the rise.

Western-backed Abbas and Fatah hold sway in the West Bank from their seat of government in the town of Ramallah. The Palestinians seek to establish an independent state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Writing by Ori Lewis; editing by Christopher Wilson

Israel hits Hamas government buildings, reservists mobilized


Israeli aircraft bombed Hamas government buildings in Gaza on Saturday, including the prime minister's office, after Israel's cabinet authorized the mobilization of up to 75,000 reservists in preparation for a possible ground invasion.

Palestinian militants in Gaza kept up cross-border salvoes, firing a rocket at Israel's biggest city Tel Aviv for the third straight day. Police said it was destroyed in mid-air by an Iron Dome anti-missile battery deployed hours earlier, and no one was injured.

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, said Israeli missiles wrecked the office building of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh – where he had met on Friday with the Egyptian prime minister – and struck a police headquarters.

In the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashdod, a rocket ripped into several balconies. Police said five people were hurt.

With Israeli tanks and artillery positioned along the Gaza border and no end in sight to hostilities now in their fourth day, Tunisia's foreign minister travelled to the enclave in a show of Arab solidarity.

Officials in Gaza said 41 Palestinians, nearly half of them civilians including eight children and a pregnant woman, had been killed since Israel began its air strikes. Three Israeli civilians were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

In Cairo, a presidential source said Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi would hold four-way talks with the Qatari emir, the prime minister of Turkey and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in the Egyptian capital on Saturday to discuss the Gaza crisis.

Egypt has been working to reinstate calm between Israel and Hamas after an informal ceasefire brokered by Cairo unraveled over the past few weeks. Meshaal, who lives in exile, has already held a round of talks with Egyptian security officials.

Israel uncorked its massive air campaign on Wednesday with the declared goal of deterring Hamas from launching rockets that have plagued its southern communities for years. The salvoes recently intensified, and are now displaying greater range.

The operation has drawn Western support for what U.S. and European leaders have called Israel's right to self-defense, along with appeals to both sides to avoid civilian casualties.

Hamas, shunned by the West over its refusal to recognize Israel, says its cross-border attacks have come in response to Israeli strikes against Palestinian fighters in Gaza.

“We have not limited ourselves in means or in time,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Israel's Channel One television. “We hope that it will end as soon as possible, but that will be only after all the objectives have been achieved.”

Hamas says it is committed to continued confrontation with Israel and is eager not to seem any less resolute than smaller, more radical groups that have emerged in Gaza in recent years.

The Islamist movement has ruled Gaza since 2007. Israel pulled settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but maintains a blockade of the tiny, densely populated coastal territory.

RESERVE TROOP QUOTA DOUBLED

At a late night session on Friday, Israel's cabinet decided to more than double the current reserve troop quota set for the Gaza offensive to 75,000, political sources said.

The move did not necessarily mean all would be called up or that an invasion would follow. Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the sandy border zone on Saturday, and around 16,000 reservists have already been summoned to active duty.

The Gaza conflagration has stirred the pot of a Middle East already boiling from two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to spread beyond its borders.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit Israel and Egypt next week to push for an end to the fighting in Gaza, U.N. diplomats said on Friday.

Hamas's armed wing claimed responsibility for Saturday's rocket attack on Tel Aviv, saying it had fired a longer-range, Iranian-designed Fajr-5 at the coastal metropolis, some 70 km (43 miles) north of the Gaza Strip.

After air raid sirens sounded, witnesses saw two white plumes rise into the sky over the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv and heard an explosion when the incoming rocket was hit.

The anti-missile battery had been due to take delivery of its fifth Iron Dome battery early next year but it was rushed into service near Tel Aviv after rockets were launched toward the city on Thursday and Friday. Those attacks caused no damage or casualties.

In Jerusalem, targeted by a Palestinian rocket on Friday for the first time in 42 years, there was little outward sign on the Jewish Sabbath that the attack had any impact on the usually placid pace of life in the holy city.

In Gaza, some families abandoned their homes – some of them damaged and others situated near potential Israeli targets – and packed into the houses of friends and relatives.

ISRAEL'S GAZA TARGETS

The Israeli army said it had zeroed in on a number of government buildings during the night, including Haniyeh's office, the Hamas Interior Ministry and a police compound.

Taher al-Nono, a spokesman for the Hamas government, held a news conference near the rubble of the prime minister's office and pledged: “We will declare victory from here.”

A three-storey house belonging to Hamas official Abu Hassan Salah was also hit and totally destroyed early on Saturday. Rescuers said at least 30 people were pulled from the rubble.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama commended Egypt's efforts to help defuse the Gaza violence in a call to Morsi on Friday, the White House said in a statement, and underscored his hope of restoring stability there.

On Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil paid a high-profile visit to Gaza, denouncing what he called Israeli aggression and saying Cairo was prepared to mediate a truce.

Egypt's Islamist government, freely elected after U.S.-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak fell to a popular uprising last year, is allied with Hamas but Cairo is also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

In a call to Netanyahu, Obama discussed options for “de-escalating” the situation, the White House said, adding that the president “reiterated U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself, and expressed regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives”.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-09, killed over 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died.

But few believe Israeli military action can snuff out militant rocket fire entirely without a reoccupation of Gaza, an option all but ruled out because it would risk major casualties and an international outcry.

While Hamas rejects the Jewish state's existence, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in areas of the nearby West Bank, does recognize Israel but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Israel requests reservists after rockets target cities


Israeli ministers were on Friday asked to endorse the call-up of up to 75,000 reservists after Palestinian militants nearly hit Jerusalem with a rocket for the first time in decades and fired at Tel Aviv for a second day.

The rocket attacks were a challenge to Israel's Gaza offensive and came just hours after Egypt's prime minister, denouncing what he described as Israeli aggression, visited the enclave and said Cairo was prepared to mediate.

Israel's armed forces announced that a highway leading to the Gaza Strip and two roads bordering the enclave would be off-limits to civilian traffic until further notice.

Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the border area on Friday, and the military said it had already called 16,000 reservists to active duty.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened senior cabinet ministers in Tel Aviv after the rockets struck to decide on widening the Gaza campaign.

Political sources said ministers were asked to approve the mobilisation of up to 75,000 reservists, in what could be preparation for a possible ground operation.

No decision was immediately announced and some commentators speculated in the Israeli media the move could be psychological warfare against Gaza's Hamas rulers. A quota of 30,000 reservists had been set earlier.

Israel had endured months of incoming rocket fire from Gaza wehn the violence escaleted on Wednesday with the killing of Hamas's military chief, and targeting longer-range rocket caches in Gaza.   Hamas stepped up rocket attacks in response.

Israeli police said a rocket fired from Gaza landed in the Jerusalem area, outside the city, on Friday.

It was the first Palestinian rocket since 1970 to reach the vicinity of the holy city, which Israel claims as its capital, and was likely to spur an escalation in its three-day old air war against militants in Gaza.

Rockets nearly hit Tel Aviv on Thursday for the first time since Saddam Hussein's Iraq fired them during the 1991 Gulf War. An air raid siren rang out on Friday when the commercial centre was targeted again. Motorists crouched next to cars, many with their hands protecting their heads, while pedestrians scurried for cover in building stairwells.

The Jerusalem and Tel Aviv strikes have so far caused no casualties or damage, but could be political poison for Netanyahu, a conservative favoured to win re-election in January on the strength of his ability to guarantee security.

“The Israel Defence Forces will continue to hit Hamas hard and are prepared to broaden the action inside Gaza,” Netanyahu said before the rocket attacks on the two cities.

Asked about Israel massing forces for a possible Gaza invasion, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said: “The Israelis should be aware of the grave results of such a raid and they should bring their body bags.”

Officials in Gaza said 28 Palestinians had been killed in the enclave since Israel began the air offensive with the declared aim of stemming surges of rocket strikes that have disrupted life in southern Israeli towns.

The Palestinian dead include 12 militants and 16 civilians, among them eight children and a pregnant woman. Three Israelis were killed by a rocket on Thursday. A Hamas source said the Israeli air force launched an attack on the house of Hamas's commander for southern Gaza which resulted in the death of two civilians, one a child.

SOLIDARITY VISIT

A solidarity visit to Gaza by Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, whose Islamist government is allied with Hamas but also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, had appeared to open a tiny window to emergency peace diplomacy.

Kandil said: “Egypt will spare no effort … to stop the aggression and to achieve a truce.”

But a three-hour truce that Israel declared for the duration of Kandil's visit never took hold. Israel said 66 rockets launched from the Gaza Strip hit its territory on Friday and a further 99 were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Israel denied Palestinian assertions that its aircraft struck while Kandil was in the enclave.

Israel Radio's military affairs correspondent said the army's Homefront Command had told municipal officials to make civil defence preparations for the possibility that fighting could drag on for seven weeks. An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.

The Gaza conflagration has stoked the flames of a Middle East already ablaze with two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to leap across borders.

It is the biggest test yet for Egypt's new President Mohamed Mursi, a veteran Islamist politician from the Muslim Brotherhood who was elected this year after last year's protests ousted military autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are spiritual mentors of Hamas, yet Mursi has also pledged to respect Cairo's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, seen in the West as the cornerstone of regional security. Egypt and Israel both receive billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to underwrite their treaty.

Mursi has vocally denounced the Israeli military action while promoting Egypt as a mediator, a mission that his prime minister's visit was intended to further.

A Palestinian official close to Egypt's mediators told Reuters Kandil's visit “was the beginning of a process to explore the possibility of reaching a truce. It is early to speak of any details or of how things will evolve”.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-2009, killed more than 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died.

Tunisia's foreign minister was due to visit Gaza on Saturday “to provide all political support for Gaza” the spokesman for the Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki, said in a statement.

The United States asked countries that have contact with Hamas to urge the Islamist movement to stop its rocket attacks.

Hamas refuses to recognise Israel's right to exist. By contrast, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in the nearby West Bank, does recognise Israel, but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Abbas's supporters say they will push ahead with a plan to have Palestine declared an “observer state” rather than a mere “entity” at the United Nations later this month.

Gaza militants use Egyptian-brokered ceasefire to launch 21 rockets into Israel


Palestinian militants reportedly fired 21 rockets from Gaza into Israel during a unilateral ceasefire called by Israel to facilitate a visit to Gaza by Egypt’s prime minister.

Israel briefly suspended its attacks on Gaza on Friday — the third day of Israel’s operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas — at the behest of Egypt ahead of an impromptu solidarity visit by Egyptian prime minister Hisham Kandil, an Israeli official told the news site Ynet.

Four of the rockets fired during the Egyptian premier’s visit were intercepted over Ashdod by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. The remaining 17 landed in and around Ashkelon and Kiryat Gat, Ynet site reported. Israeli aircraft resumed their attacks late Friday morning.

So far, the exchanges have killed 19 Palestinians, including two children and Ahmed Jabari, a top terrorist chief, and three Israelis. Israel launched the operation in retaliation for intensified rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

According to Ynet, the Israeli defense ministry will deliver a fifth Iron Dome battery to the Israel Air Force for deployment on Saturday. Iron Dome intercepted 140 rockets since the operation began on Wednesday, according to NRG, the news site of Ma’ariv.

Early on Friday morning, before the visit, two Katyusha Grad rockets from Gaza hit Ashdod and another exploded in a house in Sha’ar Hanegev regional council, NRG reported. No one was injured in the barrage. Iron Dome intercepted five Katyushas destined for Be’er Sheva and another five hit unpopulated areas.

Later Friday, two rockets launched from Gaza reached the Tel Aviv area, at least the third and fourth to do so since Wednesday. There were no reports of injuries or damage. Hamas claimed responsibility for firing the rockets.

On Thursday evening, Israel Air Force aircraft hit some 250 targets in the Gaza Strip. One of the targets, according to the Jerusalem Post, was the home of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. He was reportedly not hurt.

The IDF is drafting 16,000 reserves troops in possible preparation for a ground incursion into Gaza, Army Radio reported. According to previous reports, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had asked the cabinet to approve drafting 30,000 troops.

Since operation Pillar of Defense began on November 14, the IDF killed 15 Palestinians in Gaza, including three children and seven militants, AP reported.

On Friday, Israel deployed thousands of police officers at Jerusalem's Temple Mount, a dite holy to both Muslims and Jews, in preparation for disturbances during Friday prayers by Muslims.

Timeline: Israel and Hamas in repeated conflict


Israel and Hamas have been in regular conflict since the rise to prominence of the Palestinian Islamist group, created in 1987 at the start of the first Intifada uprising against Israeli occupation. Here is a timeline of some of the key moments.

March 22, 2004 – After a wave of Hamas suicide bombings in Israeli cities, an Israeli missile kills Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of the Hamas movement.

April 17 – Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, the co-founder of Hamas and Yassin's successor, is killed by Israeli missile.

Sept. 1, 2005 – Israeli forces complete a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, captured from Egypt in the 1967 Middle East war, abandoning settlements and leaving the densely populated coastal area under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

Jan. 25, 2006 – Hamas wins majority of seats in Palestinian legislative election. Israel and United States cut off aid to Palestinians because Hamas refuses to renounce violence and recognise Israel.

June 25 – Hamas militants launch raid into Israel from Gaza, killing two soldiers and capturing conscript Gilad Shalit.

June 28 – Israeli troops invade the Gaza Strip, but fail to find Shalit.

Nov 26 – Ceasefire in Gaza announced, ends five months of Israeli air strikes and incursions that fail to free Shalit.

June 14, 2007 – Hamas takes over Gaza in brief civil war with Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Rockets regularly fired into southern Israel.

April 24, 2008 – Hamas leader offers Israel six-month truce in Gaza but says fate of Shalit separate issue. Talks fail to make progress but ceasefire eventually agreed. However, many rocket attacks on southern Israel recorded during truce period.

Dec 19 – Fragile six-month ceasefire expires as they fail to agree on terms to extend truce.

Dec 27 – Israel launches 22-day military offensive in the Gaza Strip after Palestinians fire rockets at southern Israeli town of Sderot. A b out 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis are killed.

Jan 18, 2009 – Israel and Hamas cease fire in Gaza.

April 9, 2011 – The Israeli military kills top Hamas militant Tayser Abu Snima in a raid, saying he was “directly and physically involved” in Shalit's capture.

Oct 11, 2011 – Israeli and Hamas officials say a deal has been reached to swap Shalit for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Swap takes place on Oct. 18

March 12, 2012 – Four days of violence between Israel and Gazan militants leaves at least 25 Palestinians dead and 80 wounded. Eight people in Israel wounded. The exchanges began after two chiefs of a smaller faction were killed in an Israeli strike.

June 23 – Israel says Hamas and other groups fire more than 150 rockets at it in a week. Retaliatory airstrikes kill at least 2 Palestinians

Oct 8 – Hamas and other groups fire more than 55 rockets and mortars at southern Israel. At least one militant killed in Israeli airstrike.

Nov 13 – Three Palestinian militants and at least four civilians die in new round of violence. More than 115 rockets fired into southern Israel. Israeli army says more than 760 rockets have hit Israel since the start of the year.

Nov 14 – Israel kills Hamas's military chief of staff; launch widespread air offensive. Warn of possible ground attack.

Egypt negotiating between Israel and Gaza factions for ceasefire, diplomats say


Egyptian intelligence officials have been leading efforts to mediate between Israel and Hamas in the last few days, in order to calm the escalation on the Israel-Gaza border.

Egyptian diplomats said that there is an effort to bring about a ceasefire by Tuesday morning.

“We hope that we will succeed to reach quiet tonight,” said one Egyptian diplomat.

Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that Hamas approached Egyptian intelligence and asked to pass a message to Israel regarding the renewal of calm.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Israel, Gaza terrorists enter cease-fire


Israel and terrorist groups in Gaza reportedly agreed to a cease-fire.

The agreement came late Sunday night and was followed by a Kassam rocket fired on Ashkelon and ten mortar shells that hit southern Israel. Israel did not respond to the rockets, showing that the cease-fire was holding, according to reports.

The agreement came hours after government ministers ordered the army “to continue to act against those responsible for terrorism.”

The cease-fire came after a weekend in which more than 120 rockets were fired at Israel, including one that struck a school bus seriously injuring a teen, and in which Israeli retaliatory strikes on terrorism sites killed 19 Gaza Palestinians.

“We will judge the other side over the next few days. The extent to which Hamas controls the other militant groups will affect the way we choose to act,” a senior Israeli official told Reuters.

A senior Palestinian source quoted in the international Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq al-Aswat said that Egypt is working to seal the current unwritten cease-fire and asked the United Nations envoy to the Middle East Robert Serry to help in negotiations

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Monday decried the ceasefire, telling Israel Radio that “Hamas is fighting a war of attrition against us. We won’t come to terms with a situation in which they decide when there’s quiet and when the area heats up.”

He accused Hamas of taking advantage of the recent months of relative quiet to smuggle in more and farther-reaching rockets.

Israeli military strikes on Gaza began April 7 after Hamas fired an anti-tank rocket at a school bus, critically injuring a teenage boy and the bus driver.

U.S. Jews mourn soldiers, pledge to fight for Shalit’s return


NEW YORK (JTA) — At the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School here, Rabbi Dov Linzer decided Wednesday that it would be inappropriate to start the day like any other given the news that the two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah in July 2006 were returned to Israel deceased.

Instead, Linzer passed around several media reports about the return of Israeli reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, effected in exchange for five Lebanese and the remains of some 200 Arab fighters.

The morning’s discussion eventually turned to the ethics of the exchange — a debate that has raged in Israel in recent weeks as the country has wrestled with the appropriateness of trading live terrorists for dead Israelis.

“Everybody really was struggling with it,” Linzer told JTA. “It wasn’t a black-and-white issue, even if people came out on one side or the other.”

The plight of Israel’s captive soldiers has galvanized the American Jewish community in ways that few Israel-related issues have in recent years. While the merits of the exchange were debated passionately at Chovevei and elsewhere Wednesday, Jewish groups that had worked for the soldiers’ release made no mention of the controversy surrounding their return.

Instead they expressed sympathy for the pain of the families, recognition of Israel’s difficult moral choices and a commitment to work toward the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in the summer of 2006 just a few days before Hezbollah’s attack.

“As we mourn Ehud and Eldad, let us redouble our efforts to seek the safe return of Gilad Shalit to his family,” Rabbi Steve Gutow, the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, wrote in an e-mail message. “The blue bracelet with the names of all three soldiers will stay on my wrist until that blessed day comes. And let us keep all the other captive soldiers — Guy Hever, Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz, Ron Arad, Majdy Halabi — in our thoughts and prayers.”

Since their capture in cross-border raids two years ago, Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev have inspired broad action by American Jews. More than a dozen groups dedicated to securing their release were created on the popular social networking Web site Facebook, a rally for their release was held at the United Nations and a petition sent to the U.N. secretary-general garnered 150,000 signatures.

Concern for the three MIAs reached the highest echelons of the U.S. Congress, where House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) emerged as arguably the most vocal Washington lawmaker on the issue.



Last September, when I

Video headlines from Israel: 2008-07-11 — Did Olmert double-bill? Shalit talks continue


Video headlines from Israel: 2008-07-11—Did Olmert double-bill? Shalit talks continue

Israel-Hamas truce begins and Israelis are ready if it fails


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 on June 19 and seemed to be holding until late Monday night, when a Palestinian mortar shell was fired into Israel. On Tuesday, several Qassam rockets landed in southern Israel, slightly injuring two people. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack.

Despite the apparent violations, Hamas said it was committed to the cease-fire, and the rocket salvo elicited no immediate response from Israel.

Hamas is expecting the cease-fire to bring 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 is expected to bring a reprieve from Palestinian shelling and rocket attacks, though Tuesday’s rocket attack fueled speculation that the quiet would not hold for long.

Palestinian rocket attacks have killed 16 people 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 has presented the scandal-plagued prime minister with a thorny dilemma.

If Olmert were to order a major invasion, left-wingers would 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 last week during a visit 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 last week about his agreeing to a cease-fire — a decision backed by his security Cabinet — 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 on June 18, 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.”

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 the 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.

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 last week.

“Should Israel honor the calm, it will also provide some relief to the Israelis,” Haniyeh told reporters.

Olmert flew to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik this 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, who was taken captive two years ago. He 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.

The IDF is expected to be ready for a last-resort invasion of Gaza, if the cease-fire fails.

Viewing the truce from many sides


JERUSALEM (JTA)—Israeli strategic thinkers are deeply divided over the implications of the truce between Israel and the Gaza-based Hamas fundamentalists. But whatever their perspective, most agree that it could have a profound impact on the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

There are several schools of thought:

* Dovish optimists hope the truce, or “tahadiyeh,” will create a new atmosphere in which genuine peacemaking with all Palestinian factions—moderates and fundamentalists alike—is possible.

* Pessimistic doves and most hawks are critical of what they see as a strengthening of the Palestinian radicals at the expense of the moderates. They fear this could make a future peace deal much more difficult, if not impossible, to attain.

* Centrists argue that because the conflict cannot be resolved, contained, long-term cease-fires with Hamas are far more realistic than pipedreams of peace with the moderates.

The differences stem largely from the way the different schools see Hamas.

Some see the organization as unshakeably wedded to the radical cause led by Iran. Others believe it can be co-opted onto the side of the regional moderates against Iran. And others hold that even if it cannot be won over, it is a more authentic representative of the Palestinians than the more moderate Fatah and therefore must be part of any viable negotiating process.

The optimists maintain that once goods start flowing freely into Gaza and the economy picks up, the Palestinian-Israel equation will change dramatically. The thinking is that when Palestinians in Gaza see that life can be very different, they won’t want to go back to struggle and hardship, and will press Hamas to extend the tahadiyeh indefinitely. In this scenario, Israel could be the beneficiary of a relatively long truce.

As for Hamas, if it stops attacking Israel, it could gain international recognition and finally have something to lose. The combination of popular pressure and Hamas’ growing role on the international stage could lead the organization to inch its way toward a long-term accommodation with Israel.

Moreover, some of the optimists see in Hamas’ acceptance of a truce with Israel an attempt by the radical organization to subtly distance itself from Iran.

Ran Edelist, a dovish commentator on strategic affairs, sees the six-month truce that went into effect June 20 as part of a wider move by Israel to remove Hamas, Syria and Lebanon from the Iranian orbit. This, rather than any hypothetical Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear installations, “is the big and genuine move against the Iranian threat,” he says.

But others on the left—the pessimists—see serious dangers in the truce itself.

Matti Steinberg, a Hebrew University expert on Palestinian affairs, says that unless Israel neutralizes the deleterious effects of the truce, it will lead to the collapse of the moderate Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank within six months.

Steinberg, a former top adviser to the Shin Bet security service, argues that the truce strengthens the radicals and weakens the moderates because it suggests to Palestinians that the Gaza model of rocketing Israeli civilians is viable, whereas the West Bank model of negotiations with Israel is going nowhere.

This, he says, will soon be accentuated by the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, presumably in exchange for the abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, for which Hamas will claim credit.

Hamas, he says, “will use the truce to strengthen its political position on the West Bank, to renew negotiations with Fatah on its terms and to infiltrate the PLO where it will set a new ideological tone. In short, it will hijack the Palestinian movement and drag Israel into a terrible one-state reality.”

In other words, unless Israel takes steps to reverse the process, Hamas will use the truce to seize control of the Palestinian movement, peace between Israel and the Palestinians will become impossible, and Israel will find itself losing international legitimacy as it rules over an increasingly turbulent Palestinian population demanding equal rights in a single state comprised of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, in which it will soon become the majority.

Nevertheless, Steinberg is in favor of the truce, partly because rejecting it would have led to tension with Egypt, which brokered the deal and wants quiet in Gaza to prevent unrest spreading among its own radicals. But more important, he says, Israel could turn the truce to its advantage, neutralizing Hamas gains by accelerating genuine peacemaking with the moderates and enabling them to deliver statehood.

Steinberg believes this can be accomplished, beyond what has been possible with Mahmoud Abbas, with a major Israeli initiative. It would involve concessions on land and Jerusalem in return for Palestinian concessions on refugees and reviving the 2002 Arab peace plan, which talks of normalization of Israel’s ties with all the Arab states after it returns to its pre-1967 Six-Day War borders.

The critique of the truce from the right is less nuanced. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu sees it as a major strategic blunder: It shows that terror pays, weakens Israeli deterrence and gives Hamas the time it needs to build up its military power for the next round.

“Israel,” Netanyahu told Israel Radio, “got absolutely nothing in return, not even Gilad Shalit.”

The fourth school, the so-called centrists, takes a totally different tack.

Its members – including former Mossad Chief Ephraim Halevy, Tel Aviv University’s Shaul Mishal and former Southern Command chief Doron Almog—argue that Israel should forget about trying to isolate Hamas and try to turn the truce into a long-term cease-fire. The thinking is that Fatah is a declining force without the power to stand behind any agreements it might reach, whereas Hamas does.

Moreover, every time Israel has attempted to “engineer Palestinian society”—that is, create or strengthen forces more amenable to it—it has failed. This school argues that a cease-fire with Hamas is far more realistic than a full-fledged peace deal with Fatah precisely because it does not require making huge “end-of-conflict” concessions on both sides.

Most Hamas spokesmen reject the idea of accommodation with Israel and openly describe the tahadiyeh as a tactical move to gain time to prepare for an inevitable future showdown. But there are some different voices.

“Everyone on your side is saying that the truce is an opportunity for Hamas to narrow the military gap, but it’s actually an historic opportunity for Israel and for all the sides involved to live in peace and build a future for the coming generations,” Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil told Ha’aretz recently.

Anyway you cut it, the truce, if it holds, seems much more than a tactical respite. Still, it remains to be seen whether it will lead to a radicalization of Palestinian life that makes peace impossible, or to a new pragmatism that makes for peace or long-term accommodation.

Now that there’s a truce, what about Gilad Shalit?


JERUSALEM (JTA) – The Hamas-Israel cease-fire’s fiercest critics are those some expected to be its greatest beneficiaries: the parents of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Having pursued a largely low-key campaign for the liberation of their son since he was abducted by Hamas-led gunmen two years ago, Noam and Aviva Shalit have reacted furiously to the exclusion of their son from the Egyptian-brokered Gaza truce.

On Sunday, the Shalits filed a petition with Israel’s High Court of Justice demanding that one of the key components of the cease-fire—the easing of Palestinian movement across the Gaza border—be blocked until Israel commit to retrieving their son.

And in a slew of media interviews, the couple accused Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of potentially having destroyed any chance of getting the 21-year-old hostage back soon—or even ever. Enlisting Gilad in absentia, they published a recent handwritten letter in which he wrenchingly begs to be freed.

Their criticism has roiled the Israeli public and fueled public debate about the efficacy of Israel’s cease-fire with Hamas.

A poll in last Friday’s Yediot Acharonot found that 78 percent of Israelis think the Gaza truce should have been conditioned on Shalit going free, while only 15 percent disagreed. Asked if they agreed with Noam Shalit’s assertions that his son had been “forsaken” by the state, 68 percent of respondents said yes and 24 percent said no.

The public’s outrage may seem surprising given the Olmert government’s repeated assurances that Shalit is integral to the truce, which began June 20. Olmert is to fly to Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt this week for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on speeding Shalit’s release.

“The ‘calming agreement’ is, for the time being, the best means of creating a framework and an umbrella to propel forward a process of discussion, under the auspices of Egypt, which we hope will culminate with the return of Gilad Shalit,” Amos Gilad, the Defense Ministry negotiator representing the state at the High Court, told Israel Radio.

Yet Hamas has said otherwise, denying any direct linkage between the suspension of hostilities and Shalit.

“We separated Shalit and the truce,” said Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza and deposed Palestinian prime minister. “The Israelis and their leaders have so far undermined reaching a prisoner exchange because they are not accommodating the Palestinian demands.”

Hamas wants Israel to free hundreds of jailed Palestinian terrorists in exchange for Shalit. Israel has balked at some of the names on Hamas’ list, arguing that returning mass murderers to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip would be disastrous for the embattled, relatively moderate Palestinian Authority.

But in recent days Israeli officials have hinted that they could relax their criteria. Israel hopes for similar flexibility from Hamas, though it has shown no signs of that.

The ace up Israel’s sleeve is Rafah, the main terminal on the Gaza-Egypt border, which was shut by Cairo after Hamas seized control of Gaza a year ago. Israeli officials say Rafah will not reopen unless there is “significant progress” in efforts to free Shalit, though what this would constitute remains unclear.

Noam Shalit has argued that Rafah could provide a conduit for Hamas to spirit out his son to a location where he will never be found.

“We all remember what happened with Ron Arad, how he was handed from one group to another and eventually disappeared,” Noam Shalit said in one interview, referring to the Israeli airman who bailed out of a plane over Lebanon in 1986, was captured and then disappeared. Israeli intelligence believes Arad was captured by Lebanese Shiite militiamen and later transferred to Iran, where many suspect he was killed.

When they announced they were filing their court petition, the Shalits found surprise support from Tammy Arad, the normally reclusive wife of the missing Israeli air force navigator.

“Captivity is a terminal disease. The chances of retrieval are in your hands,” Tammy Arad wrote in an open letter to the court. “Do not take away Gilad’s hopes of returning to his family. Do not take away Aviva’s and Noam’s hopes of reuniting with Gilad, of holding him in their arms again.”

On Monday, Israel’s high court denied the Shalits’ petition.

Israeli defense officials are doubtful about whether Hamas would want Gilad Shalit to be anywhere other than Gaza. Taking him out through the Egyptian Sinai would risk a clash between the Palestinians and Cairo.

Dov Weisglass, an adviser to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who is now helping the Shalits, said another concern is that, with Israel’s military and economic pressure on Gaza eased, Hamas will have less of an incentive to make a prisoner swap.

“Due to the siege and the closure, Hamas sought Egypt’s help in achieving a ‘calm,’ and its leaders undoubtedly understood that in exchange for the ‘calm,’ they would have to soften their demands for prisoners,” Weisglass wrote in Yediot Acharonot. “But no. Israel did not demand this. Israel, for some reason, consented for the matter of the kidnapped soldier to be discussed after the removal of the siege and closure.”

“Now, when the Gazans can breathe easy, Hamas will no longer have a reason to hurry and renew the negotiations, and certainly no reason to end it with any concession on their part,” Weisglass continued. “An Israeli hostage is not a bad thing: He is a pretext for a great many interviews, talks, trips around the world. In the end, Israel will also pay dearly for him. What could be bad about this? Why rush?”

Jerusalem officialdom also sees the strategy of keeping Shalit in captivity as a Hamas bid to safeguard its leaders against Israeli assassination attempts. In the past, Hamas has hinted it would execute Shalit in retaliation for a major Israeli strike.

Israeli officials insist that pursuing Shalit’s release in the atmosphere of a Gaza truce is the best option, given the dearth of alternatives.

A rescue raid is unlikely to succeed, given past experience with other captive soldiers and Israeli intelligence assessments that Shalit is being held in a booby-trapped underground bunker and watched by an elite team of Hamas gunmen ready to kill him and themselves. Wider Israeli military strikes in Gaza so far have proven fruitless in retrieving the soldier.

Gilad, the Defense Ministry official, said the best chance lies with Egyptian mediation.

“The Egyptians promised to muster all their resources to open contacts” on Shalit’s return, Gilad said. “Compared to other options, this is the best one at the moment. Actually, it’s the only one that exists. There are those criticizing harshly, and though the strength of the words may be impressive, no one is offering a better alternative.”