By Griff Witte and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
JERUSALEM, June 17 -- Israel and the armed Islamist group Hamas agreed in principle Tuesday to a truce in and around the Gaza Strip, officials on both sides said, capping months of indirect talks brokered by Egypt.
The deal demonstrated Hamas's staying power as the ruler of Gaza and Israel's willingness to reach accommodation with groups it has labeled terrorist organizations. In recent weeks it has intensified negotiations with Lebanon's Hezbollah movement over a possible prisoner transfer and begun indirect peace talks with Syria.
Officials cautioned that the Gaza cease-fire, which is expected to begin as soon as Thursday morning, is likely to be tenuous. Previous attempts to cease hostilities in and around Gaza have been short-lived. But it meets the immediate political needs of both sides. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, facing calls for his resignation amid a corruption probe, has been under pressure to do something to help residents of southern Israel, who live under the constant threat of rocket fire. Hamas, meanwhile, has suffered high casualties during Israeli attacks and has been losing popularity in Gaza amid a crushing economic embargo.
The agreement would be implemented in phases, with Israel easing the year-old siege on Gaza if Hamas stops attacks, according to Egyptian and Israeli officials. Israel also may allow the opening of the Rafah crossing -- between Gaza and Egypt -- if there is progress on the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
The deal was first reported Tuesday afternoon by Egyptian state-run media and was confirmed by Hamas officials. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh issued a statement heralding progress toward stopping Israeli "aggression and ending the siege."
Israeli officials, some of whom would not speak for the record, said Israel's special envoy, Amos Gilad, had been dispatched to Cairo on Tuesday afternoon to hammer out the final details.
"Obviously, if this is going to be successful, we'll need more than words. We'll need deeds," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Regev said those deeds include a halt to rocket fire from Gaza, the end of weapons smuggling into the territory and positive signals on the freeing of Shalit.
Since Hamas took exclusive control of Gaza last June, there has been a significant escalation in rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel. Four Israeli civilians have been killed in such strikes this year. At the same time, Israel has waged a near-daily campaign of attacks against gunmen from Hamas and other militant groups. Many Palestinian civilians have been killed in those strikes, including dozens during a single week this spring.
In Sderot, an Israeli town that borders Gaza and that has borne a large share of the rocket fire, there was relief on Tuesday.
"We have been waiting for quiet for a long time," said Michael Amsalem, a member of Sderot's municipal council. "I believe that the agreement will bring many smiles to the faces of the people in this town."
Not everyone in Israel was so sanguine.
"This is a great victory for Hamas and Iran, and it's a great failure on behalf of Israel," said Yuval Steinitz, a leading member of the opposition Likud Party, which favors an invasion of Gaza aimed at dismantling Hamas. "This is going to be extremely costly, because when we have to act in Gaza, Hamas's capability will be much stronger than it is today."
Despite the impending truce, violence continued Tuesday, with Israel killing six gunmen in Gaza. The Israeli attacks followed days of heavy rocket fire from Gaza, and four more rockets were launched Tuesday after the Israeli strikes.
Israel and Hamas did not negotiate face to face, but instead traded proposals through Egypt, a process the United States encouraged. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organization, and Hamas does not recognize Israel's existence.
Israel could begin allowing more supplies into Gaza as early as Sunday, according to Tarek Hassan, deputy chief of Egypt's state-owned al-Ahram newspaper, who sat in on the negotiations.
Hamas had initially lobbied for the truce to apply to both Gaza and the West Bank, but Israel balked at that idea and limited negotiations to Gaza.
Previous cease-fires in Gaza have failed. In late 2006, Israel reached a deal with the Palestinian Authority, but the truce was short-lived.
This one could be, too. A high-ranking Israeli military official told a parliamentary committee Tuesday that any truce with Hamas was likely to be "temporary and fragile," according to people familiar with his statements.
Israel had publicly contemplated launching a wide-scale invasion of Gaza aimed at ousting Hamas. Olmert and his top aides ultimately decided against it, out of concern that the Israeli military would get bogged down in an unwinnable counterinsurgency campaign. But a senior Israeli official said Tuesday the option remains on the table.
"If this breaks down, there will not be another attempt at a cease-fire. There will be a large-scale Israeli operation," the official said. "This has to hold."
Knickmeyer reported from Cairo. Special correspondents Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem, Islam Abdulkarim in Gaza City and Sherine al-Bayoumi in Cairo contributed to this report.