Uneasy Calm Emerges in Gaza as U.S., Egypt Push Talks

Israeli soldiers congregate around an idle tank at a staging area in southern Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered the army to scale back operations in the Gaza Strip following a sharp drop in rocket fire from the Palestinian area, officials said.
Israeli soldiers congregate around an idle tank at a staging area in southern Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered the army to scale back operations in the Gaza Strip following a sharp drop in rocket fire from the Palestinian area, officials said. (By Ariel Schalit -- Associated Press)
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

JERUSALEM, March 10 -- An uneasy calm has settled over southern Israel and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in recent days as the United States and Egypt work to broker a cooling-off period following nearly a week of frantic fighting.

While no truce has been signed and no direct negotiations are taking place, Israel and Hamas appear to have informally agreed not to fire on each other for the time being. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said as much at a news conference Monday, reiterating an earlier statement indicating that Israel won't fire if Hamas doesn't.

"Israel will not tolerate a continuation of Qassam and Grad missile-shooting at Israeli residents," Olmert said, referring to the two kinds of rockets favored by Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza. "If this will continue, we will shoot. If it will not, we will have no reason to shoot."

Since Friday, Israel's military has recorded 14 rockets or mortar shells fired from Gaza toward Israel. That is down dramatically from the rate of over a week ago, when Hamas had been averaging several rockets every hour. Since the beginning of the year, 1,059 rockets or mortar shells have been fired at Israel from Gaza, according to the military.

Hamas, which calls for a state governed by Islamic law across territory that now includes Israel, won the January 2006 parliamentary elections over the rival Fatah movement. It then ruptured a power-sharing arrangement with Fatah in June 2007 when its military wing seized control of Gaza.

The pace of attacks has also slackened on the other side. Since Friday, there has been one Israeli attack in Gaza, the military said. That followed a massive five-day Israeli operation at the end of February and the beginning of March that killed more than 125 Palestinians. Three Israelis also were killed.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said Monday that the slowdown in violence has come as a result of talks mediated by Egypt and supported by Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the region last week trying to reignite stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which is dominated by Hamas's secular rival Fatah, over a settlement to the two sides' decades-long conflict.

Those negotiations could not go forward, however, until the violence in Gaza abated. Because neither Israel nor the United States will talk to Hamas, Rice focused on using Egypt as a mediator, the officials said.

"All the sides have an interest in some calm right now," a senior Israeli official said. The official added, however, that "the ball is in Hamas's court" and that the lull in violence "is fragile. It could end at any moment."

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied that there had been any truce, but acknowledged that Egypt was mediating talks. He said any truce would have to involve Israel agreeing to end its attacks in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as lifting a crushing economic blockade in Gaza. "If they want calm, it has to be a comprehensive calm," he said. Until then, he said, Hamas reserves the right to use violence.

Israel on Sunday announced plans to build hundreds of new homes in a West Bank settlement north of Jerusalem. The move was quickly condemned by Palestinian negotiators, and on Monday U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on Israel to halt the expansion in the interest of peace. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the plans "aren't helpful."

Israel has said it has the right to expand existing settlements but has pledged not to build new ones.

The White House announced that Vice President Cheney will travel to the region starting Sunday, a trip aides said was planned before the recent violence. He will visit Israel and the West Bank as well as Saudi Arabia, Oman and Turkey.

Staff writer Peter Baker in Washington contributed to this report.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company