BREAKING: Israeli police confirm rocket fired from Gaza landed in Southern Israel


Rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel two hours before the deadline of a 72-hour cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.

One rocket exploded Wednesday night in an unpopulated area of the Shaar Hanegev Regional Council, The Jerusalem Post reported. No damage or injuries were reported. Rocket sirens sounded in Ashkelon and surrounding areas.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army massed more troops along the Gaza border on Wednesday as the midnight deadline neared for the end of the temporary truce.

A news conference expected to be held by the Palestinian delegation to truce talks in Cairo at 9:30 p.m. reportedly was delayed until further notice.

Earlier Wednesday, the United States said it wanted a long-term cease-fire secured between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, but would settle for extending the temporary truce launched at midnight Monday if negotiators in the Egyptian capital cannot reach a larger accord by the deadline.

President Obama spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu by phone on Wednesday, urging Netanyahu to reach an agreement that would end the violence.

According to Israel’s Channel 2, the Israeli team returned home from the indirect negotiations in Cairo.

Israelis, Palestinians begin new talks to end Gaza war


Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed indirect talks mediated by Egypt on Monday on ending a month-old Gaza war, Egypt's state news agency said, after a new 72-hour truce appeared to be holding.

The Israeli military said one rocket was launched at the Tel Aviv area, in Israel's commercial heartland, before the cease-fire began at 2100 GMT on Sunday and may have landed in the sea. Gaza's dominant Hamas group said it fired the missile.

A senior Israeli government official had said on Sunday Israeli negotiators, who had left Cairo on Friday hours before a previous three-day ceasefire expired, would return to Egypt to resume the talks only if the new truce held.

Hamas is demanding an end to Israeli and Egyptian blockades of the Gaza Strip and the opening of a seaport in the enclave – a project Israel says should be dealt with only in any future talks on a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians.

A month of war has killed 1,938 Palestinians and 67 Israelis while devastating wide tracts of densely populated Gaza, and Egypt's Foreign Ministry has urged both sides to work towards “a comprehensive and lasting cease-fire agreement”.

Gaza hospital officials say the Palestinian death toll has been mainly civilian since the July 8 launch of Israel's military campaign to quell Gaza rocket fire.

Israel has lost 64 soldiers and three civilians, while heavy losses among civilians and the destruction of thousands of homes in Gaza have drawn international condemnation.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the new negotiations would be “the last chance” for an agreement. Israeli representatives are not meeting face-to-face with the Palestinian delegation because it includes Hamas, which Israel regards as a terrorist organization.

LONG-TERM TRUCE

Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said in a radio interview on Monday that disarming Gaza militants was crucial to sustain a long-term truce and he hoped this could be done by diplomacy rather than force.

“I certainly hope that there will be a diplomatic solution. If there will not be a diplomatic solution, I am convinced that sooner or later we will have to opt for a military solution of taking temporary control of Gaza to demilitarize it again,” he told Israel Radio.

Another sticking points in the Cairo talks has been Israel's demand for guarantees that Hamas would not use any reconstruction supplies sent to Gaza to build tunnels of the sort Palestinian fighters have used to infiltrate Israel.

Hamas has demanded an end to the economically stifling blockade of the enclave imposed by both Israel and Egypt, which also sees the Islamist movement as a security threat.

Israel has resisted easing access to Gaza, suspecting Hamas could then restock with weapons from abroad.

According to the United Nations, at least 425,000 displaced people in the Gaza Strip are in emergency shelters or staying with host families. Nearly 12,000 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged by Israeli attacks.

In Gaza, shops began to open and traffic was normal as some displaced families returned to the homes they had been forced to abandon during Israeli attacks, expressing hopes that this truce would last after a series of failed ceasefires.

“God knows if it is permanent,” said Abu Salama, a resident of Gaza's Shejaia district, as he and his family headed home on a donkey cart. “A truce, no truce, it is becoming like Tom and Jerry. We want a solution,” he said.

TURKISH SHIPS

The new three-day cease-fire won praise from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who hoped it might lead to a durable cease-fire.

Israeli air strikes and shelling on Sunday killed nine Palestinians in Gaza, medics said, in a third day of renewed fighting since the last truce ended.

One air strike destroyed the home of Gaza City's mayor, Nezar Hijazi, across the street from the Reuters bureau where reporters and cameramen took cover as the explosion occurred. There were no casualties in the attack because Israel telephoned warnings to residents in the house and neighboring buildings.

The Israeli military said it targeted 11 “terror squads” in Gaza, among them gunmen involved in or preparing to fire rockets.

Since the previous ceasefire expired, Palestinian rocket and mortar salvoes have focused on Israeli towns and communities near the Gaza frontier in what seemed a strategy of sapping morale without triggering another ground invasion of Gaza.

Residents of those communities, who had been assured by the military they could return home when last week's truce began, have accused Israeli authorities of misleading them.

Israeli tanks and infantry left the enclave on Tuesday after the army said it had completed its main mission of destroying more than 30 tunnels dug by militants for cross-border attacks.

Four wounded Palestinians were flown into Ankara for medical treatment on Monday, the first sign of Turkey's promised plan to evacuate thousands from the Gaza Strip.

A Turkish aid group said it would send ships again to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza, four years after Israeli commandos stormed its flotilla bound for the Palestinian territory and killed 10 people in fighting with activists on board.

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

UN condemns Gaza rockets, alarmed by Israel ‘heavy response’


The United Nations condemned rocket fire into Israel from Gaza that ended a five hour humanitarian truce, but is “alarmed by Israel's heavy response,” U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman told the U.N. Security Council on Friday.

“Israel has legitimate security concerns, and we condemn the indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza into Israel that ended yesterday's temporary ceasefire. But we are alarmed by Israel's heavy response,” Feltman told the emergency council session.

Israel intensified its land offensive in Gaza with artillery, tanks and gunboats on Friday and warned it could “significantly widen” an operation Palestinian officials said was killing ever greater numbers of civilians.

Editing by Bernadette Baum

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

Operation Pillar of Defense: Lessons learned


As Israel and Hamas mostly stilled their guns Wednesday night after reaching a cease-fire agreement, ending eight days of intense bombardment, both sides took home some new lessons about their foes.

By firing longer-range rockets capable of reaching Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Hamas demonstrated for the first time that it could expand the borders of the missile battleground to include the densely populated center of Israel. Even under severe aerial bombardment, Hamas managed to launch some 1,500 missiles over the course of the week. Some traveled as far as 50 miles.

But with its Iron Dome missile defense system, Israel showed how technology can be a game changer on the battlefield. Of the missiles targeted by Iron Dome, which is designed to knock down only missiles aimed at populated areas, approximately 80 percent to 90 percent were eliminated, the Israeli military said. In all, the Israel Defense Forces said Iron Dome downed 421 missiles.

“Eight days ago, Israel launched an operation after terror attacks from Gaza escalated,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday night. With several major terrorist commanders eliminated and much weapons infrastructure destroyed, he said, “we have decided to give cease-fire a chance.”

Israel suffered five fatalities in the fighting, all but one civilians. The Palestinians reported more than 140 killed, including militants and civilians. That’s approximately the same proportion of Israeli-to-Palestinian casualties the last time Israel and Hamas went to war, during the 22-day Operation Cast Lead launched in late 2008. But the Palestinian casualty rate this time was about one-third the rate of Cast Lead, when an average of 350 Palestinians were killed per week.

That’s probably because this round of fighting, which the IDF dubbed Operation Pillar of Defense, did not include a ground invasion.

Palestinian casualties increased significantly during Israel’s ground invasion in the 2008-09 war, stoking international anger. As that war dragged on, Israeli critics said the military achieved diminishing returns the longer it stayed in Gaza and should have gotten out quicker.

This time, though Netanyahu threatened to send in ground troops — calling up 75,000 reserve troops and massing tanks on the Israel-Gaza border — he did not follow through on his threat.

Under the terms of the cease-fire, Israel agreed to halt its operation in Gaza, including targeted assassinations, and Palestinian terrorist groups agreed to stop their rocket fire and border attacks against Israel. Some sporadic fighting was still reported after the cease-fire went into effect Wednesday night.

So, who won, and what did the fighting accomplish?

If it holds, the cease-fire will have ended the rocket fire on southern Israel without any concessions to Hamas — a clear victory for Israel. The operation also enabled Israel to do some damage to Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure, including killing the Hamas military chief, Ahmed Jabari. The IDF was able to do it all without undertaking a risky ground invasion that could have ratcheted up the casualty count on both sides and fueled more international ire.

On the plus side for Hamas, the group showed that despite Israel’s ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip, terrorists are able to get their hands on increasingly potent and sophisticated weaponry, representing a greater threat to Israel. And despite Israel’s bombardment, Hamas’ rocket launching capability has not been destroyed. Few Israelis believe it’s anything but a matter of time before the rocket fire starts anew.

There are some very clear losers here.

Again, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority was left sitting on the sidelines while Hamas commanded Israel’s attention and claimed the mantle of the Palestinian cause. Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, have been frozen since 2009. While Hamas did not achieve any tangible gains from the fighting, Palestinians in the more moderate Fatah-ruled West Bank rallied to Hamas’ side. The notion that negotiation rather than violence is the path toward Palestinian statehood seems to have suffered yet another setback.

While Hamas was emboldened by the Egyptian government’s very public and sympathetic stance, the sympathy didn’t translate into any concrete assistance on the ground. Egypt’s prime minister visited Gaza during the fighting as a show of solidarity, but Egypt kept out of the fighting and retained its role as a broker between Israel and Hamas.

That’s a triumph for President Mohamed Morsi, who showed that despite his affiliation with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood — Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Islamist group — he could play the role of mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Egypt’s gain showed Turkey’s loss. Once Israel’s closest Middle East ally and a key conduit between Israel and the Arab world, Turkey was left on the sidelines of this conflict. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s description of Israel as a “terrorist state” may have won him fans among his Muslim base, but it also signaled that Turkey had lost its unique ability to act as a mediator in the conflict.

Finally, there’s the issue of cost for Israel. Each Iron Dome missile interceptor comes with a price tag in excess of $40,000, and Israelis suffered damage to infrastructure ranging from homes to schools to roads.

But President Obama has pledged to seek additional funding from Congress for the Iron Dome system. The United States already has sent Israel $275 million for Iron Dome over the last two years, and earlier this year the U.S. House of Representatives proposed an additional $680 million through 2015, with the Senate proposing an additional $210 million.

Iron Dome’s success during the fighting also could be a boon for Israel’s defense industry, as other countries facing similar rocket threats clamor for the pioneering missile defense system.

Whether that defense coupled with Israel’s offensive in Gaza is enough to deter Hamas from resuming its attacks remains unclear.

With cease-fire talks proceeding, Israel reportedly holding off on ground invasion


Israel reportedly has held off on a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in order to give cease-fire talks a chance to work.

News reports on Tuesday cited an unnamed Israeli official as saying that the ground invasion was delayed as Egypt attempts to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

Meanwhile, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi said Tuesday following his sister's funeral that a truce deal could be concluded in the coming hours, Reuters reported, citing an Egyptian news agency. Egypt reportedly has been passing the draft of a cease-fire agreement between negotiators from Hamas and Israel in Cairo since Monday night.

Hamas reportedly has demanded that Israel stop surgical strikes on Gaza and lift the blockade of the coastal territory. Israel reportedly has called for a halt to rocket fire from Gaza on Israel as well as an end to weapons smuggling from Egypt, according to Reuters.

“I prefer a diplomatic solution,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said before a meeting with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Jerusalem. “I hope we can get one, but if not, we have every right to defend ourselves with other means, and we shall use them.”

Foreign leaders have pressed Israel to agree to a cease-fire. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived Tuesday in Israel to encourage a cease-fire, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to arrive Tuesday evening.

Israel is calling up 75,000 reserve troops in preparation for a ground operation. The tank and infantry units have been massed on the Israel-Gaza border.

Gaza militants signal truce with Israel after rockets


Palestinian militants indicated they were ready for a truce with Israel on Monday to defuse a growing crisis after four days of rocket strikes from the Gaza Strip into the south of the Jewish state.

There was no immediate response from Israel which has warned it is ready to ramp up its air strikes and shelling if the rockets do not cease.

Leaders of Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls Gaza, met with Islamic Jihad and other groups on Monday night and said they would respond according to the way Israel acted – a formulation used in previous flare-ups to offer a ceasefire.

“If (Israel) is interested in calm they should stop the aggression,” Sami Abu Zuhri of Hamas told Reuters.

The Palestinian people were acting in self-defense, he said.

“The ball is in Israel's court. The resistance factions will observe Israel's behavior on the ground and will act accordingly,” said Khaled Al-Batsh of the Islamic Jihad group.

Throughout the day, Israel warned it was ready for stronger action. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened foreign ambassadors in what an apparent move to pre-empt international censure should Israel, whose 2008-2009 Gaza offensive exacted a high civilian toll, again go in hard.

Netanyahu briefed the envoys in Ashkelon, a port city within range of some Palestinian rockets. “None of their governments would accept a situation like this,” he said.

He was due to convene his close forum of nine senior ministers on Tuesday to decide a course of action. Israel Radio said Defence Minister Ehud Barak and military chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz had met with Netanyahu on Monday night to present possible attack scenarios.

Environment Minister Gilad Erdan, an influential member of Netanyahu's Likud party, said the briefing was meant to prepare world opinion for “what is about to happen”, adding there might be a major Israeli escalation within a few hours.

“Hamas bears responsibility. The heads of Hamas should pay the price and not sleep at night. I expect to see not just a return to targeted killings, but also to very wide activity by (the army),” he told Israel Radio.

Hamas took part in some missile launches at the weekend but it did not claim responsibility for attacks earlier on Monday, suggesting it was looking to step back from the brink.

The Israeli military said Palestinians had fired 12 rockets on Monday, and a total of 119 had been launched since Saturday.

Netanyahu said a million Israelis – around one-eighth of the population – were in danger. Israel has been deploying its Iron Dome rocket interceptor, air raid sirens and blast shelters, but eight people have been wounded by the rockets.

Six Palestinians, including four civilians, have been killed by Israeli shells fired on Gaza since Saturday, and at least 40 have been wounded.

EGYPT IN THE PICTURE

A Palestinian official who declined to be named said Egypt had been trying to broker a ceasefire and although no formal truce was in place, Hamas understood the need for calm.

Monday's launches were claimed by smaller groups, including a radical Salafi organization that rejects Hamas's authority.

Israel has shown little appetite for a new Gaza war, which could strain relations with the new Islamist-rooted government in neighboring Egypt. The countries made peace in 1979.

But Netanyahu may be reluctant to seem weak ahead of a January 22 election that opinion polls currently predict he will win.

Israel said the latest flare-up started on Thursday with a fierce border clash. On Saturday, a Palestinian missile strike wounded four Israeli troops patrolling the boundary, triggering army shelling of Gaza in which the four civilians died.

In turn, dozens of mortars and rockets were launched at Israel, which carried out a series of air strikes in Gaza.

Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Editing by Ori Lewis, Douglas Hamilton and Andrew Heavens

Despite truce, rockets still falling on Israel


Rockets continued to fall on southern Israel despite a truce with Gazan terrorist groups.

The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted five rockets fired at Ashkelon shortly after the truce, which was mediated by Egypt, went into effect at 8 p.m. Sunday. Several rockets also hit southern Israel on Sunday.

An Israeli man, 50, was seriously injured by shrapnel when a rocket exploded near a factory in Sderot.  A school in Sderot also was damaged by rocket fire.

Israel struck several targets in Gaza over the weekend, according to the Israeli military, including a terror cell about to detonate a rocket. Hamas reported that at least three Palestinians were killed in retaliatory attacks over the weekend, including a child and a terrorist.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of the regularly scheduled Cabinet meeting on Sunday said “the IDF is taking strong action against those who are attacking us and it will take even stronger action if need be. Our policy is to use force in order to restore security and quiet to the residents of the south.”

At least 150 rockets fired from Gaza have struck southern Israel since the cross-border attacks began last week, the Israel Defense Forces reported.

Cross-border violence continues between Israel and Gaza


An Israeli air strike killed a Palestinian militant and wounded two men in the Gaza Strip on Friday, Israel and Hamas medical officials said, two days after an Egyptian-brokered truce had calmed an outbreak of cross-border violence.

The strike in central Gaza followed the firing of two rockets at Israel earlier in the day. There were no reported casualties in those incidents.

An Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed there was an air strike after a Hamas medical official in Gaza said a militant had been killed and two other people were wounded in an Israeli strike at al-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza.

Israel said its jets had targeted militants preparing to fire rockets at Israel. In Gaza, the Popular Resistance Committees, militants often involved in shooting rockets, said the man killed in the attack belonged to their group.

The violence broke a two-day lull in cross-border attacks when Hamas militants in Gaza said they would abide by an Egyptian-brokered deal to withhold fire as long as Israel also stopped shooting.

Egypt feared the fighting near its borders could spark wider violence at a time when Cairo was confronting fresh popular protests over the uncertain outcome of a presidential vote.

Hamas’s involvement in the fighting had added to Egypt’s and Israel’s concerns, as the Islamist group which governs Gaza had largely avoided direct involvement in confrontations with Israel since a devastating 2009 Israeli offensive.

The militant killed on Friday was the ninth person in Gaza killed by Israeli air strikes since Monday, including a 14-year-old boy. Israel launched these attacks after an attack from Egyptian Sinai that killed an Israeli man.

Israel responded on Monday by killing two of the attackers, then targeted militants in Gaza including some it blamed for the Egyptian border incident and others it said fired rockets.

The Israeli military said more than 130 rockets and mortars fired from Gaza have struck Israeli towns since Monday, some of them launched after the truce was called.

Reporting by Saleh Salem; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Louise Ireland

Israel moves to ease strains with Egypt


Israel offered on Thursday to investigate jointly with Egypt the killing of five Egyptian security personnel during an Israeli operation against cross-border raiders a week ago, violence that has strained relations with Cairo’s new rulers.

“Israel is ready to hold a joint investigation with the Egyptians into the difficult event,” a statement issued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office quoted his national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, as saying.

Amidror said the terms of such a probe “would be set by the armies of both sides”, going a step beyond Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s earlier pledge to hold an investigation and share its findings with Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

While Israel moved to ease tensions with Egypt, it mounted further attacks against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, where more than 20 rockets have been launched at southern Israel since Wednesday despite a truce announced on Monday.

Five Palestinians, including a local commander of the Islamic Jihad group in the Gaza Strip, have been killed in the latest bloodshed.

The surge of violence began on Aug. 18 when gunmen who Israel said had infiltrated from the Gaza Strip via Egypt’s neighbouring Sinai desert killed eight Israelis on a desert border road.

Seven of the attackers were killed by Israeli forces and Egypt said five of its men died in the crossfire. The incident triggered the most serious diplomatic row with Egypt since a popular revolt overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February.

The violence between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip threatens to unravel the shaky truce mediated by Egypt and the United Nations.

U.N. Middle East envoy Robert Serry, in a written statement, expressed his “deep concern” and called on all sides “to immediately take steps to prevent any further escalation”.

Taher al-Nono, a Hamas spokesman, said any “understanding for calm must be mutual and we will not accept that Israel continues its killing of our people”.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Editing by Jeffrey Heller

Gaza operation begins with bombings, Olmert calls for unity, U.S. blames Hamas


Olmert to Israelis: Unite around Gaza operation

JERUSALEM (JTA) — No country should have to live under constant threat of missile barrages, Ehud Olmert told the Israeli people.

In an address Saturday night, Israel’s prime minister, flanked by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, asked the Israeli public to unite around the Israel Defense Forces operation that began in Gaza earlier in the day.

“The lives of our citizens are not forfeit,” Olmert said. “In recent days, it became clear that Hamas is bent on conflict. Whoever heard Hamas’ statements understood that they decided to increase attacks on the residents of Israel by firing rockets and mortars indiscriminately. In such a situation we had no alternative but to respond. We do not rejoice in battle but neither will we be deterred from it.”

Olmert warned the public that the number of missiles may increase in the near future and could reach to more distant communities than ever before.

Olmert also said that he heart went out to the family of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, who reportedly has been held in Gaza since his capture in 2006.

The prime minister warned neighboring countries not to use the Gaza operation as an excuse to launch their own attacks.

“Israel is currently focusing on striking at the terrorist organizations that are operating to undermine stability in the entire region. I hope that no other element in the region will think that while Israel is fighting in the south, that it is inattentive to what is happening in other areas,” Olmert warned. “We will not hesitate to respond to any aggression against us.”

Israel launches major Gaza operation

(JTA) – Israel began moving tanks to the Gaza area in advance of a possible ground attack.

The movement of tanks and ground troops on Saturday night followed a massive retaliatory Israeli bombing campaign that has killed close to 200 people in the Gaza Strip, most of them Hamas militants.

The wave of air-launched bombs Saturday was in retaliation for the recent intensification of rocket-launches from Gaza, which is controlled by the Hamas terrorist group. On some days, more than 50 rockets have been aimed at towns and farms in southern Israel.

Militants in Gaza responded by firing at least 30 rockets; one killed an Israeli resident of the town of Netivot. Hamas reported that almost all of its security installations were hit and threatened suicide attacks in retaliation.

Israel dropped at least 100 tons of bombs in the raids. “There is a time for calm and there is a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting,” Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, said in a news conference.

Reports from Gaza said most of the dead were affiliated with the security forces, including Gaza City’s police chief, although a number of the casualties were civilians. Hamas officials said at least 140 of the dead belonged to the terrorist group’s militias.

U.S. blames Hamas for violence

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Bush administration blamed Hamas for the escalation of violence on the Israel-Gaza Strip border and noted the humanitarian needs of Gazans.

Israel launched massive air raids Saturday in retaliation for an intensification of rocket attacks from Gaza, which is controlled by the Hamas terrorist group.”The United States strongly condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and holds Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza. The ceasefire should be restored immediately,” a U.S. State Department statement said. “The United States calls on all concerned to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the innocent people of Gaza.”

News accounts said between 150 and 200 people were killed in the Israeli raids, most of them members of Hamas militias. At least one Israeli was killed when a rocket from Gaza struck his house Saturday.

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.”

Can Olmert’s goodwill gestures kick-start peace?


After the plethora of goodwill gestures Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made in his meeting Saturday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, politicians and pundits on both sides are asking one question: Will it be enough to kick-start the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

Leaders on both sides are optimistic. They see Olmert’s moves as part of a new and wider American plan for Israeli-Palestinian accommodation.

Pundits, however, are downbeat. Few believe Abbas will be able to create the necessary conditions on the Palestinian side for successful negotiations with Israel.

The meeting was the first between the two leaders since Olmert’s election victory last March. Its primary purpose was to help strengthen Abbas and his relatively moderate Fatah movement in their ongoing power struggle with the radical Hamas.

Olmert’s moves were part of a two-pronged plan: To show the Palestinian people that more can be achieved through Abbas-style dialogue with Israel than armed confrontation, and to strengthen Fatah militarily by allowing it the wherewithal to build up its armed forces ahead of a possible showdown with Hamas over approaches to Israel.

With this in mind, Olmert made the following goodwill gestures:

  • Israel would release $100 million in frozen Palestinian tax money.
  • It would remove dozens of checkpoints to facilitate Palestinian movement in the West Bank.
  • It would ease passage in and out of Gaza to enable the free flow of goods and medicines.
  • It would consider freeing a few dozen Palestinian prisoners in early January to mark Id el-Adha, the Muslim feast of the sacrifice, ahead of the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas-affiliated terrorists.
  • It would agree to set up joint committees to consider further prisoner releases and the removal of key Fatah operatives from Israel’s wanted list.
  • It would allow Egypt to supply Fatah with 1,900 Kalashnikov rifles.
  • It would allow the Palestinian Badr Brigade, currently stationed in Jordan, to redeploy in Gaza.

Olmert went out of his way to show friendship and respect for Abbas and his presidency, waiting for Abbas outside the prime minister’s residence and embracing him warmly on arrival.

Olmert also made a major symbolic gesture: For the first time, Palestinian flags were flown in an official Israeli state building.

“Abu Mazen is an adversary — he is a not an easy adversary, but with an adversary like this, there is, perhaps, a chance of dialogue that will bring an accord between us and the Palestinians,” Olmert said in a speech Sunday, his first public comments following the two hours of talks with Abbas.

Senior Abbas aide Saeb Erekat also was cautiously optimistic.

“It would be a mistake to think that all the problems could be solved in one meeting, but the meeting improved the feeling on both sides,” he said.

Writing in the mass-circulation daily, Yediot Achronot, political analyst Itamar Eichner summed up the new friendship between Olmert and Abbas.

“They have a common interest not to mention a common enemy: to block the rise of Hamas, which enjoys massive support from Iran,” he wrote.

The Israeli moves complement U.S. and European efforts to strengthen Fatah.

The Americans are soon expected to release about $100 million to Abbas, and they also have been training Fatah forces.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a mid-December visit to Ramallah, outlined economic projects from which the Palestinians could benefit if they reached accommodation with Israel.

All of these moves are part of a wider plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that has begun to take shape in the U.S. State Department. The new American thinking envisages leapfrogging stage one of the internationally approved “road map” for Israeli-Palestinian peace and moving directly to stage two, which calls for the establishment of an interim Palestinian state with provisional borders.

Discarding stage one means that talks could go ahead without the Palestinians first stopping all violence and without Israel dismantling West Bank outposts.

The idea is that once a ministate is established, those things would be much easier for the parties to handle.

By strengthening Abbas, the Americans hope to create conditions for the establishment of a new Palestinian government that would recognize Israel and become a serious negotiating partner. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to make a visit to the region soon to press the plan.

The American approach is not much different from ideas being bandied about in the Israeli Foreign Ministry and supported by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Livni, who favors going directly for an interim Palestinian state, told a meeting of Europe-based Israeli ambassadors in Jerusalem on Sunday that the Olmert-Abbas meeting was important not as “a lone gesture, but as a process of which gestures are a part.” She added that in her view, moderate Arab and Muslim states should be involved, as well.

On the Palestinian side, Abbas also expressed the hope that the meeting would lead to peace talks.

Israeli pundits, however, are skeptical. They doubt Abbas will be able to carry off the necessary first step: the establishment of a Palestinian government that makes the right noises about recognizing Israel, accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and renouncing violence.

“First that must happen, but as we know from experience, something on the way is bound to go wrong, and all we’ll get is more of the same,” political analyst Ben Caspit wrote in the Ma’ariv daily.

“Many meetings between Palestinian and Israeli leaders have taken place up till now, but it seems that never have two such weak partners sat on either side of the table — Abu Mazen on the verge of a civil war and Olmert after a war and embroiled in an investigation,” Caspit wrote.

“They have a great many qualities in common: not a bad vision and considerable courage. On the other hand they are lacking in leadership and confidence, exhausted and shackled by political constraints, enemies inside and out.”

The trouble is, Palestinian society is deeply divided over how to proceed.

In Abbas’ view, the Palestinians will always be outgunned and therefore will lose in any violent confrontation with Israel. Thus, negotiation is the way forward.

Hamas holds that time is on the Palestinians’ side, and the best path is to establish a temporary truce, use it to stockpile weapons and wait for Iran to become the dominant regional power.

Israeli intelligence estimates that if Abbas is able to rekindle a peace process, Hamas will escalate its violence against Israel in a bid to extinguish it.

Complicating matters even further, the fight on the Palestinian streets is not only between Fatah and Hamas. Poverty and the breakdown of law and order have spawned violent, armed gangs loyal only to themselves and contemptuous of authority, whether from Fatah or Hamas. They will probably continue to use terror against Israel, even if Abbas and Hamas agree to a cease-fire.

If the latest American initiative is to succeed, it will have to find a way of neutralizing both Hamas and the street gangs. Otherwise, new peace prospects will drown in a sea of Palestinian chaos.

Making peace at the best of times would not be easy. In these circumstances, it will be a very tall order indeed.

Leslie Susser is diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem report.
JTA correspondent Dan Baron in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Will Violence Again Flare Up in 2006?


Will the Palestinians start the new year with a renewal of violence?

That has been the question asked by many nervous Israelis in the final weeks of 2005, as the “truce” declared by Palestinian terrorist groups early last year came to an end.

True, there was never a complete cessation of violence. Islamic Jihad, which did not join in the truce, carried out several suicide bombings during the pact’s nine-month stretch.

But the relative lull helped Prime Minister Ariel Sharon engineer the Gaza Strip withdrawal and is credited by the Shin Bet with a 60 percent decrease in Israeli casualties from terror during 2005.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who coaxed terrorist groups into observing the cease-fire he declared with Sharon last February, appealed for an extension.

“I think it is our interest that the truce continues, in order to have the opportunity to reconstruct our country and to make things take their ordinary course,” he said last week during a fundraising trip to the United Arab Emirates.

Hamas, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and smaller factions have so far resisted the call.

According to last week’s Shin Bet report, arms smuggling into Gaza has skyrocketed sixfold since Israel left during the summer. In the West Bank, terrorists have already test fired a rocket in a bid to emulate the tactics of their Gazan comrades.

But there may be a grace period in the works before the dreaded resurgence of violence comes. Hamas is running in Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections on Jan. 25 and has sought a more mainstream political profile. It is seen as unlikely to resort to major terrorism before the votes are in — assuming, of course that the vote is not postponed.

Further complicating matters for the Palestinians is the speedy deterioration of Gaza into anarchy. Six foreigners have been kidnapped by gunmen there in recent days, belying Abbas’ pledge to turn the coastal strip — post-Israel — into an orderly prototype for a future Palestine.

All of this means that the U.S.-led “road map” for peace could soon end up in tatters.

Sharon may be preparing for that eventuality. According to a front-page report in Ma’ariv, the prime minister has sent Israeli officials to propose to the United States that, following the Palestinian Authority election, the road map should be abandoned in favor of unilateral action.

Sharon wants President Bush’s endorsement for Israel declaring a border that would include some West Bank land, while allowing for the creation of a temporary Palestinian state beyond, the newspaper said Monday.

“A wave of Hamas terrorism will thwart any hope” of progress in peacemaking, wrote Ma’ariv’s editor in chief, Amnon Dankner, and its senior political correspondent, Ben Caspit.

The road map, they added, “looks like a dead end, which in effect provides Sharon with a fig leaf to cover up the new diplomatic path being planned in Jerusalem.”

There was no immediate U.S. response, and a senior Israeli political source dismissed the article as” speculation.”

But Sharon, who looks set for re-election in March, has made no secret of planning to settle the conflict with the Palestinians during a third term in office — whether or not Abbas is a partner. Bush has already given his tacit approval to Israel’s intention to hold on to major West Bank settlement blocs, making their eventual annexation a formality.

Which leaves the question of whether the Palestinians will launch a new terror war or make do with what territory they get, hoping for economic revival and some domestic stability.

In a rare vote of confidence for potential progress, Turkey plans to take over the Erez industrial zone on the Gaza-Israel border, a move that would provide employment opportunities to hundreds of Palestinians. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is due in the region later this week to sign the deal.

The Jerusalem Post reported that Ankara sees the initiative as a chance to boost its pull in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and has been undeterred by Gaza’s recent cross-border violence.

After the Cease-Fire What Comes Next?


As Israel and the Palestinians begin a long-awaited truce, both sides are holding their breath — and wondering what the United States will do next to advance the “road map” peace plan.

The late June cease-fire by the three main Palestinian terror groups, declared as the intifada approached the 1,000-day mark, underlined the vital importance of the U.S. role. Without U.S. pressure on the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terror groups and on European and Arab nations to cut off their funding, the cease-fire never would have been achieved, Israeli analysts say.

More importantly, the analysts agree that unless Washington keeps up the pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians, the new deal could quickly unravel. Then, instead of moving ahead on the internationally accepted peace plan toward a longer-term settlement, the sides could find themselves locked in an even-worse cycle of violence.

Much will depend on how the Bush administration handles a number of key issues:

  • Will it force Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to go beyond a cease-fire and dismantle terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as he has agreed to do under the road map?

  • Will it restrict Israel’s freedom of action if the Palestinians violate the cease-fire?

  • Will it pressure Israel to release Palestinian terrorist prisoners as a goodwill gesture?

  • Will it lean on Israel to dismantle illegal settlement outposts and established settlements?

  • Will it insist that Israel stop building a security fence that it says is essential to keep terrorists from infiltrating from the West Bank, but which the Palestinians say is taking their land?

The cease-fire declaration coincided with a visit by Condoleezza Rice, the White House’s national security adviser. Her main purpose was to make clear to both sides what the United States expects of them and to signal the U.S. determination to push the road map.

In her talks with Abbas in Ramallah, Rice was firm on dismantling terrorist groups. She used Abbas’ own slogan –“one authority, one command and one armed force” — and echoed Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush in insisting that the United States would accept nothing less than the disarming of the groups and the collection of their weapons.

Beyond the rhetoric, the United States reportedly is considering granting the Palestinian Authority as much as $1 billion, partly to help it disarm the militants. Some of the funds would be used to help build an alternative welfare system to Hamas’.

Through this money and other investment, the United States hopes to dramatically improve socioeconomic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, showing that peace pays and encouraging further steps in that direction. Much of the money would be held back, pending convincing evidence that the Palestinians really are decommissioning illegal weapons.

The Americans also are exerting heavy — and apparently successful — pressure on European and Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, to clamp down on funding for Hamas as part of the struggle to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and weaken the fundamentalists.

But what if the Palestinian Authority is unable to impose its authority on all factions and the shooting continues? On Monday, the day after the cease-fire was declared, gunmen from Abbas’ own Fatah movement fatally shot a Bulgarian worker in the West Bank, whom they mistook for an Israeli.

To Israel, Rice made very clear that the United States expects it to act with restraint and give the Palestinian Authority time to organize its forces. In talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Cabinet, Rice acknowledged Israel’s right to defend its citizens and act against “ticking time bombs,” such as suicide bombers on their way to attack — if the Palestinians, after being given the relevant information, fail to stop them.

However, she said, Israel should “think twice” before retaliating against terrorist acts or plans, taking into account the effects its actions could have on the wider peace process. Israel, Rice said, should be careful not to do anything that weakens Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.

Major Israeli strikes in Palestinian areas will undermine the P.A.’s credibility on the Palestinian street, the United States believes.

Rice also urged Sharon to release as many Palestinian prisoners as possible to boost Abbas’ standing and show the Palestinian populace what can be gained by sticking to the road map. Israel is holding approximately 3,000 Palestinian detainees, and Sharon is ready to free several hundred — but not those who have killed Israelis or directly ordered others to do so.

Sharon has asked the Shin Bet security service to prepare a list of prisoners whose release “would not harm Israel’s security.”

If the Palestinians adhere to the cease-fire, the United States also can be expected to pressure Israel to continue dismantling illegal outposts, but not bona fide Jewish settlements. The first phase of the road map refers only to outposts set up since March 2001. Calls for the evacuation of settlements proper will come only in the second phase, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in temporary borders, with “maximum territorial continuity.”

One area of emerging disagreement between Israel and the United States is the security fence. Abbas told Rice that the Palestinians would have no problems with a fence along the pre-1967 border, but that the route Israel currently plans allegedly would leave only 45 percent of the West Bank in Palestinians hands, divided into three “cantons” — hardly the viable state envisaged by Bush.

Rice asked Sharon to reconsider the route. Sharon, however, argued that the fence would constitute a security line rather than a political border and could be moved later.

Rice was skeptical. To many people, she said, the route looks like an attempt to create a political border unilaterally, and this is seen as problematic.

Israel’s nightmare scenario is that the cease-fire will break down after the Palestinian Authority fails to disarm Hamas and the other terror groups. The question then will be whether the United States, after playing the honest broker, tolerates Israel moving back into the West Bank and Gaza Strip in self-defense.

Much will depend on whom the United States blames for the breakdown of a process in which, by then, it will have invested so much.


Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.