Olmert: Gaza cease-fire is fragile, may be short lived
PM: Shalit release inseparable from deal; Official: Israel to end Gaza siege if cease-fire goes as planned.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday said that Israel would do its part to implement a cease-fire deal in the Gaza Strip, but warned that the truce was "fragile and likely to be short-lived."
Olmert spoke hours after Israel confirmed that it had agreed to an Egyptian-proposed cease-fire (tahadiyeh), to go into effect at 6 A.M. Thursday.
The prime minister said that Israel would "go forward in implementing this calm" but that its military was readying its response should Palestinian rocket attacks continue.
Olmert stressed that he had not and would not negotiate directly with terrorist elements, and reiterated Israel's position that Shalit's release was inherent to the truce deal.
"We have no illusions. The calm is fragile and likely to be short-lived," Olmert said. "Hamas has not changed its skin. These are bloodthirsty and despicable terrorists who even today are doing all they can to harm Israeli civilians."
"Hamas is the address in Gaza, and it carries responsibility for everything that happens in Gaza," he added.
Olmert also said that the release of abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit was an inherent condition for the cease-fire deal reached with Gaza militants.
"Gilad Shalit's release is inseparable from the understandings reached in the terms for calm. Each day, I make efforts to return him to his parents. I believe that as part of the understandings that enabled this calm, we will be able to advance his release," Olmert said.
Earlier, government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel planned to ease its months-long siege of the Gaza Strip so long as the truce deal was implemented as planned.
"If the fighting indeed ceases Thursday as planned, Israel will ease its blockade of Gaza next week," Regev said. At the same time, talks to release Shalit will intensify, Regev said.
Shalit was kidnapped by Gaza militants from his IDF post in cross-border raid in June 2006.
Peter Lerner, spokesman for Israel's military coordinator for the Gaza Strip, said the plan was to boost supplies to the territory starting next week by an initial 30 percent from the 60 truckloads a day now entering.
"Initially it will be foodstuffs and other basic commodities. That could be expanded later to construction materials," Lerner said.
A Palestinian trade official dismissed the planned increase as "nothing."
Egypt and Hamas, which controls the coastal strip, both announced Tuesday that a cease-fire would go into effect Thursday morning. But there was no official confirmation from Israel until Wednesday.
"Thursday will be the beginning, we hope, of a new reality where Israeli citizens in the south will no longer be on the receiving end of continuous rocket attacks," Regev said. "Israel is giving a serious chance to this Egyptian initiative and we want it to succeed."
However, alongside the Israeli confirmation came 15 Qassam rockets fired from Gaza, most of which struck open fields in the western Negev on Wednesday morning and another which scored a direct hit on a home in Sderot.
One rocket caused light damage to a nearby greenhouse. Palestinian militants also opened fire on Israel Defense Forces troops operating near the Gaza-Israel border fence, but none were wounded.
Jerusalem reportedly approved the cease-fire deal after Egyptian diplomats told Defense Ministry official Major General (res.) Amos Gilad, who was in Cairo Tuesday for talks, that Hamas had agreed to Israel's demands.
Army Radio reported that Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni all approved the deal.
Gilad emphasized Wednesday, however, that the truce does not constitute a peace deal.
"This is not a peace agreement. There is an understanding that is based on the effectiveness of military activities until now, and the will to stop it. At this point, we are exhausting the possibilities," Gilad told Israel Radio.
Senior Hamas officials, among them Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and the deputy head of the organization's political bureau in Damascus, Mohammed Nazal, announced the timetable, confirmed by news agencies with officials in Cairo.
"Both sides have pledged to halt all hostilities and all military activities against each other," Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said in Cairo Tuesday.
Gilad met Tuesday with Egyptian intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman. The Hamas delegation from Gaza, who met with Suleiman at the beginning of the week, is still in Cairo; Egypt may be shuttling between the parties to conclude the deal. Gilad returned to Israel overnight with the final agreement and reported to Barak.
The cease-fire reportedly includes a pledge by the IDF not to engage in offensive action in the Gaza Strip, and a pledge by Hamas to prevent any attack from the Strip on Israel by its operatives or the other Palestinian groups. Smaller groups in the Strip who are not party to the agreement have hinted that they will not impede it.
Once there have been three days of calm, Israel has pledged to ease the economic siege of the Gaza Strip and allow a large shipment of raw materials and merchandise through the border crossings. A few days later the Egyptians have pledged to renew intensive talks in Cairo for the release of Shalit. The talks will be coordinated by Olmert's point man on prisoner negotiations, Ofer Dekel.
At the same time, Shin Bet security service head Yuval Diskin will evaluate whether the clause in the agreement to cut the smuggling of arms significantly has been kept. The smuggling goes via Sinai to the Strip. If Israel sees progress on these two fronts, it will remove its objection to the opening of the Rafa crossing.
No limit in West Bank
The agreement puts no limitations on IDF actions in the West Bank, and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said Tuesday in the Knesset that the army would continue its operations in the West Bank. He added that Israel had to try the option of calm and at the same time prepare for a military operation.
Hamas leader Nazal told the Nazareth station Radio Ashams that Hamas' agreement not to include the West Bank was not a concession, and that "the West Bank is an inseparable part of Palestinian land," but that "it was important first of all to lift the siege on Gaza." He confirmed there were understandings to move ahead on talks on Shalit's release following the agreement and that this issue depended on Israel.
Defense sources in Israel said the cease-fire could hold for a few months. Sources also said that the day ahead was particularly sensitive and the IDF would be on high alert against attacks.
Vice Premier Haim Ramon said: "The tahadiyeh is recognition of Hamas and a very serious blow to the Palestinian Authority and its leaders, who will negotiate to establish a joint government with Hamas."
Speaking at the University of Haifa at a memorial ceremony for Nir Regev, killed in the terrorist attack at Haifa's Maxim restaurant, Ramon also said: "In the end there will be an operation, but it will extract a much higher price."
Ramon also said he opposed the cease-fire because he considered it "a victory for radical Islam."
Meshal: Any Israeli violation of the deal would not go unanswered
On Tuesday, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal said the truce commits Israel to ending its crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip but any Israeli violation of the deal would not go unanswered.
"If you go back, we go back. The resistance factions are not in a weak position, they are in a strong position... We are a people with a cause and we will not be broken by aggression or invasion," Meshal told Reuters during a visit to the United Arab Emirates.
"We will deal with the position on the ground as necessary."
Damascus-based Meshal said that the truce deal made no mention of Shalit or opening the Rafah crossing with Egypt.
Israel had said Rafah would not reopen unless there was progress on Shalit's release.
"The enemy tried...to merge the issue of Gilad Shalit with the truce. We rejected this and in the final Egyptian offer the two issues are not linked," he said.
Meshal added: "The Gilad Shalit issue is linked to an exchange deal ... whereas the truce involves a bilateral ceasefire, lifting the blockade and opening the crossings."