Gaza Truce Won't Be Widened to West Bank

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 4, 2006

JERUSALEM, Dec. 3 -- Extending a tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in the Gaza Strip to the far larger West Bank proved elusive Sunday as Israel's security cabinet decided against doing so and the governing Hamas movement withdrew from negotiations on the matter.

But the Israeli government reaffirmed its commitment to the temporary truce in Gaza despite the continuing rocket fire from there into southern Israel, which violates the eight-day-old agreement.

Israeli military officials say 15 rockets have been launched from Gaza since the truce was reached between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has suggested that the modest achievement could be a first step toward reviving dormant negotiations over the creation of a Palestinian state.

"The situation is sensitive," Olmert told the cabinet. "We must act wisely and with serious consideration."

The cease-fire, hailed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a visit here last week, has brought a pause to months of fighting in and around Gaza.

Israeli forces have killed more than 250 Palestinians there, most of them gunmen, since the military wing of Hamas captured an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid on June 25. Palestinian rocket fire, a terrifying daily menace to many towns along the strip's edge, has killed two Israelis since then.

Rice urged Olmert and Abbas to build upon the rare accord by extending its terms to the West Bank, an area of far greater strategic importance to Israel and the Palestinians than the remote, enclosed strip.

But Israeli military officials have warned against doing so, fearing that the armed groups would use the respite to replenish arsenals and plan attacks against Israel. That argument appeared to win over the cabinet, already under some pressure to renew operations in Gaza in light of the continuing rocket fire, which has not caused any injuries since the cease-fire took effect.

One rocket fell inside Israel on Sunday, military officials said. Later in the day, Israeli forces killed a 15-year-old Palestinian boy near the West Bank city of Nablus who was throwing rocks at troops during what military officials characterized as a riot.

A few hours later, Hamas officials in Gaza announced that the radical Islamic group was quitting talks with other Palestinian factions over whether to include the West Bank in the truce.

A Hamas spokesman, Ismail Radwan, said Israel was violating the terms of the cease-fire in Gaza, although he did not specify how. He also signaled that the talks to extend the truce were distracting from Palestinian efforts to form a national-unity government, a process that has broken down in recent days.

"The comprehensive cease-fire must come as a part of a comprehensive national plan, and at this time, the talks on a cease-fire are being held at the expense of talks on internal Palestinian issues," the group said in a statement issued in Gaza.

Those talks between Hamas and Abbas's rival Fatah movement are designed to produce a government acceptable to international donors, who cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas's victory in January parliamentary elections. Hamas, classified as a terrorist organization by Israel, the European Union and the United States, has so far refused to meet international demands that it recognize Israel's right to exist.

In another indication of the cease-fire's fragility, the radical Islamic Jihad issued a statement Sunday warning that "calm is on the edge of collapse" because of Israeli violations. The group, which did not formally agree to the cease-fire, said it would begin attacks on Israel "in the coming hours."

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