Israel Defense Force troops in the Gaza Strip received a direct order from Chief of Staff Dan Halutz yesterday to avoid opening fire against any Qassam rocket crews. Before the cease-fire actually went into effect yesterday, nine rockets were fired into Israel, and the IDF did not respond.

Starting at 10 o'clock yesterday morning, all fire ceased. However, senior IDF officers later expressed criticism at the decision to accept the cease-fire agreement.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday during a visit in the Negev that "the State of Israel is so strong that it can allow itself some restraint in order to give a chance to a cease-fire."

He added: "After all, the cease-fire is not the supreme aim. It is only an interim stage, which we hope will create the dynamic that will result in negotiations and dialogue - and perhaps in the end bring about a settlement between us and the Palestinians."

Of the rockets that were fired from the northern Gaza Strip into Israel, three landed in Sderot and its environs. One hit a home in the city and caused serious damage, but no injuries. Other rockets landed inside Palestinian territory.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the launchings. Hamas explained that it had experienced a problem concerning the timing the cease-fire, and Islamic Jihad said that it did not accept the temporary lull in fighting, or tahadiyeh, the term that is used in Arabic.

Following the rocket attacks, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas ordered the deployment of 13,000 Palestinian soldiers close to the border with Israel, to prevent further launches. The force that Hamas created to counterbalance the Palestinian policemen that are controlled by Abbas' F atah, was not deployed.

A spokesman for the Palestinian government said that it is the intention of the authorities to pursue any violators of the cease-fire.

Peretz: Israel wants calm

Defense Minister Amir Peretz told senior defense officials at a meeting yesterday that "every attempt to shoot at the territory of the State of Israel will be considered a violation of the cease-fire and will be handled with gravity."

"Israel is interested in calm," Peretz added, "but will not accept attacks on its citizens. If it turns out that the PA chairman and the leadership of the various factions prove unable to impose the cease-fire on the groups, Israel will consider this a violation of the cease-fire and will take action to protect its citizens."

Later, the defense minister said that, "from our point of view, whoever is preparing to shoot against us or harm us, is a legitimate target. We do not intend to ask for the identity of the group that is responsible for the shooting."

Notwithstanding the tough words, the IDF units on the ground near and around the Gaza Strip have been ordered to show maximum restraint.

In army circles, and particularly at IDF Southern Command, there is a great deal of skepticism about the agreement. Senior officers have warned that without enforcement and an end to the smuggling of weapons through tunnels from Sinai to Rafah, the cease-fire is a dangerous development.

The officers maintain that Hamas is making enormous efforts to arm itself. They add that when the organization thinks it is ready, its members will resume the violence and then its military capabilities will pose a greater threat to IDF troops.

Senior security sources in Israel pointed out yesterday that leaders in militant groups spoke of a cease-fire only in terms of the Qassam rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, and did not commit themselves to stopping other forms of attacks in other parts of the territories.