Israelis Announce Cease-Fire In Gaza

Annette Ridwan and her husband, Fouad, stand on their balcony in the Gazan town of Beit Lahiya after an Israeli strike on a mosque next door.
Annette Ridwan and her husband, Fouad, stand on their balcony in the Gazan town of Beit Lahiya after an Israeli strike on a mosque next door. (By Abid Katib -- Getty Images)
By Craig Whitlock and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 18, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 17 -- Israel said Saturday that it would cease fighting in the Gaza Strip and pronounced victory in the devastating war that it launched 22 days ago. But fears persisted that the conflict could rekindle, as Hamas vowed to keep up its attacks.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced a cease-fire in Gaza, effective 2 a.m. local time Sunday (7 p.m. Saturday in Washington), saying Israel had achieved its aims. He said Israel had succeeded in dealing a harsh blow to Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza, that would make it think twice about resuming its practice of firing rockets into southern Israel.

"The operation proved again the power of Israel and improved its deterrence against those who threaten it," Olmert said in a late-night televised speech. "Hamas was hit hard, in its military arms and in its government institutions."

Olmert did not say when Israeli troops would withdraw from Gaza and made clear they would fight back if Hamas did not lay down its weapons, raising the possibility that the cease-fire could be short-lived.

"If they stop firing, we will consider leaving Gaza at a time that is suitable to us," he said. "If they continue attacking us, they will again be surprised by our determination."

Hamas leaders ripped Olmert for ignoring third-party negotiations, brokered by Egypt, that have sought to bring an end to the war. They said they would continue to fight until Israel agreed to withdraw its forces from Gaza, open border crossings and end its restrictions on the delivery of food, medicine and other supplies to the impoverished Palestinian territory.

"If the Israeli military continues its existence in the Gaza Strip, that is a wide door for the resistance against the occupation forces," Osama Hamdan, an exiled Hamas leader in Lebanon, told al-Jazeera television. Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since June 2007, does not recognize Israel's right to exist.

In Gaza, exhausted residents said they hoped that a cease-fire would take root but were skeptical. Noha Abu Jabaim, 37, a housewife whose family members were chased from their village by the fighting, said things could "still get much worse."

"We need a long cease-fire, 10 years at least," she said. "But I don't see any light of hope with either side of this conflict. Both Israel and Hamas are losers. Hamas lost because Israel hit so many civilians. As for the Israelis, they didn't end the launching of the rockets or stop the resistance. They only killed the innocents. In the end, nobody wins."

More than 1,140 Palestinians, including about 500 women and children, have been killed in Gaza since the fighting began Dec. 27, according to Gazan health officials. Thirteen Israelis, including 10 soldiers, have died.

The stated goal of the Israeli offensive was to weaken, if not destroy, Hamas so that it could no longer launch missiles and unguided rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. Palestinian fighters have fired more than 7,000 of the rockets since 2005, according to the Israeli military, and their range and lethality have progressively improved.

Although Hamas absorbed heavy losses in manpower and materiel over the past three weeks, it never lost its capacity to launch strikes on Israel. On Saturday, Palestinian fighters aimed about two dozen missiles and rockets into Israel, including several that landed after Olmert's speech.

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