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Four Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip will cease firing Qassam rockets at Israel, they announced on Monday. The move followed significant pressure from Hamas on the three smaller factions - Islamic Jihad and the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine. Hamas has controlled the territory since the summer of 2007. It failed to persuade small, break-away groups to adhere to the cease-fire.

Palestinian sources said the announcedment followed a meeting Saturday of representatives of the four factions.

Daud Shihab, an Islamic Jihad spokesman, said its leadership had met and decided to cease rocket attacks against Irael. However, reports from the Palestinian News Agency on Monday included denials from Jihad members that such a decision was made. The denials are interpreted as Islamic Jihad's not wishing to give the impression to the Palestinian public that it has succumbed to Hamas pressure.

For its part Hamas appears keen to prevent the possibility of yet another massive Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip, and yesterday there were reports of a rise in the number of patrols by Hamas forces in areas where rockets are normally fired at Israel.

Several Arab media reported Monday that Egypt is making intense efforts to reduce tensions between Israel and Hamas, for fear tensions could spark renewed fighting in the south.

A senior Egyptian source said that Cairo is in touch with all parties, including Hamas and Israel, in an effort to prevent escalation.

During the past month, the situation along the border with the Gaza Strip grew gradually tenser after a Thai farm hand was killed by a Qassam rocket at Nativ Ha'asara. Later, an Israel Defense Forces officer and a soldier were killed in a firefight with Palestinian gunmen trying to lay explosives near the border fence close to Kisufim.

A number of organizations claimed responsibility for that firefight, including Hamas. IDF sources assessed that the role of Hamas in that incident was limited, and that its leadership is eager to keep the fighting to a minimum.

However, IDF sources also said there had been a drop in Hamas enforcement of the cease-fire, especially in limiting the firing of rockets by smaller armed factions.

Even though neither Hamas or Israel would like to see the situation deteriorate further, the agreement between Hamas and the smaller factions has two notable weak points.

The first is the absence of break-away factions, which are influenced by the extremism of Al-Qaida ideology (the Jaljalat faction). Most of the rocket attacks in recent weeks were initiated by these groups, whose radicalism has brought them into direct conflict with Hamas. Their leadership describe Hamas as "heretic."

The second problem is that it is unclear how the factions will behave along the border fence. In recent weeks the IDF has tried to enforce a "no man's land" of several hundred meters in depth on the Gaza Strip side of the fence. The factions may come to see this area as their main battlefield and seek to engage IDF patrols along the fence. A similar scenario resulted in Operation Cast Lead in late December 2008.

The Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, has spoken of the need for national agreement on ending rocket attacks. No doubt, Hamas is facing difficulties and it does not want to see another massive incursion by the IDF into the Gaza Strip. That could end Hamas rule in the Strip.

Posted by Avi Issacharoff, April 6, 2010

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