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.
Some security analysts said they did not expect the Israel Defense Forces to remain in Gaza for long. Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, ending a presence in the territory that began in 1967 when Israeli forces occupied Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinians envision establishing a state in the two territories.
"The IDF never stands at a post passively, so if they will not go deeper, then the only way Israel will go is backwards, out of Gaza," said Menachem Klein, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. "This means they may have to endure some fire from Hamas on the way out for this to hold."
But others questioned whether Israel had asserted victory prematurely and had failed to destroy Hamas's control over Gaza when it had the chance.
"Unfortunately, the goal presented was relative and not conclusive enough," said Moti Yogev, a retired army colonel and former deputy commander of Israeli forces in Gaza. "Yes, Israel went up a few steps, and now Hamas will have to think twice before it acts. But what was done was not enough. I would have made them think for 10 or 20 years before they try to do anything again."
The Israeli decision was independent of intensive peace talks that have been mediated by Egypt, which borders southern Gaza. Like Israeli leaders, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sees Hamas as a threat because of its ties to Muslim fundamentalists who would like to overthrow the secular government in Cairo.
In his speech, Olmert thanked Mubarak but did not mention whether Israel would accept any part of a truce agreement that Egypt has been crafting in consultation with emissaries from Hamas and several European countries.
Mubarak had urged Israel earlier Saturday to declare a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza, saying the death toll had become unacceptable. Egyptian officials said Mubarak would host a summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday, as leaders from Turkey, Jordan and several European countries gather to discuss conditions in Gaza.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed the Israeli announcement and called on both sides to observe a "durable" cease-fire.
Gaza saw sporadic but intensive combat Saturday. The Israeli military said it pounded more than 70 targets, including tunnels used to smuggle weapons into the territory from Egypt.
Two Palestinian brothers -- ages 5 and 7 -- were killed when an Israeli tank fired on a United Nations school in northern Gaza that had been serving as an emergency shelter for an estimated 1,600 people.
The incident was the latest Israeli attack on a U.N. building. On Thursday, the Israeli military shelled a compound belonging to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, injuring three people and setting a warehouse ablaze. On Jan. 6, Israeli mortar shells struck another U.N. school serving as an emergency shelter, killing 43 people, according to U.N. and Palestinian health officials.
Saturday's strike prompted U.N. officials to ask for an independent investigation to determine whether a war crime had been committed, the first time they have done so since Israel began its offensive. "We think it's necessary," said Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. "We'd like to see the facts speak for themselves."
In each of the attacks on U.N. buildings, the Israeli military has said it was responding to shots or mortar fire from Hamas fighters, although Israeli officials have apologized for Thursday's strike.
The Israeli military said Saturday that it would investigate the latest incident but again suggested that soldiers were defending themselves. "Initial inquiries have shown that in all of these incidents, soldiers were fired upon, either from the buildings in question or from their vicinity," the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement.
In his speech, Olmert said Israel was continuing its efforts to win the freedom of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Hamas in Gaza since June 2006, when he was grabbed by Palestinian fighters during a raid on an Israeli army post.
"We do not need any prompting on this issue," Olmert said. "The political attempts have started long before the military operation did, and will continue."
Israeli society places the highest premium on the welfare of its soldiers, and there is widespread public pressure on the government to secure Shalit's freedom. The Israeli government has in the past released Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captured soldiers.
In a letter to the Israeli government released Saturday, before the announcement of the cease-fire, Shalit's family said his return "must be an overt and explicit part of any agreement."
Shalit's capture and the subsequent seizure of two other Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah fighters in northern Israel helped spark a two-front war in July 2006. At the time, Olmert said the soldiers' return was a precondition for peace.
But after the war, Shalit, now 22, remained in custody.
The remains of the other two soldiers were returned last summer in exchange for five Lebanese fighters held by Israel.
"We are facing a critical juncture and a one-time window of opportunity to return Gilad, after more than 2 1/2 years in Hamas captivity," Noam Shalit, the soldier's father, said at a news conference Saturday.
As the cabinet met Saturday night, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, chanting, "No deal without Gilad," Israeli news services reported.
Special correspondent Reyham Abdel Kareem in Gaza City and researcher Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.