Ryan Jones | Correspondent | Thursday, June 19, 2008
By midday the truce appeared to be holding, though few expected it to last, including Israeli military officials, who had been ordered by the government to prepare for immediate action the moment the terrorists violated the quiet.
Hamas warned of a severe response from its side if Israel was the first to disturb the tenuous peace. Just hours before the ceasefire went into effect, Gaza rocket crews pounded southern Israel with some 50 rockets and mortar shells to drive home that point. An Israeli woman was wounded in the barrage when one rocket hit a home in the battered southern Israel town of Sderot.
Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said in remarks to Israel Radio that he found it mind-boggling that the government would enter into yet another ill-advised ceasefire that everyone knew would be used by the terrorists to regroup and rearm for future aggression.
Previous informal ceasefires between Israel and Hamas have on paper lasted for months, but in reality were punctuated by regular attacks, while limitations on Israel's military response allowed the terrorists to simultaneously keep pressure on the Jewish state and increase their strength.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon, who is a close confidante of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, also blasted the decision to deal with the terrorists instead of defeat them. Israel is effectively telling Hamas there are no consequences for remaining an extremist group, he said.
"I am against a truce because it is another triumph for radical Islam," said Ramon during a conference at Haifa University on Tuesday. If terrorists are permitted to attack and then win respite by their use of violence, "what is the point of being moderate? Why would Hamas be interested in a resolution?" Ramon asked.
Average Israelis living in the shadow of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip were even more concerned than various government officials seemed to be.
"This calm is worthless for us," Sderot resident Haim Koznitz told Army Radio. "The current calm will only strengthen Hamas. While we gained nothing, Hamas will solidify its hold by presenting the ceasefire as something it achieved for the benefit of the people."
Israeli defense officials admitted that the truce will strengthen Hamas rule in Gaza, further decreasing the likelihood that the territory will revert to the control of Palestinian elements more palatable to Israel and Western peace brokers.
"Hamas has a vested interest in maintaining the calm in order to strengthen its rule," said one official.
Senior army officers told Ha'aretz a day earlier that they failed to understand why Israel is granting Hamas a respite that will almost surely be exploited to bolster the terror group's defensive and offensive capabilities, in addition to its grip on the local population.
The officers noted that the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire places no limitations on Hamas activities in Gaza, and even if it did, there is no monitoring mechanism. Hamas will be free to continue bringing arms into Gaza, planting mines, digging tunnels and building bunkers. By the end of the ceasefire, Gaza may be as difficult a battlefield as southern Lebanon, making an effective response to future Hamas aggression all the more difficult.
Also entering the fray was Noam Shalit, father of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who angrily criticized the government for dropping his son's freedom as a condition for halting military operations against Hamas.
The elder Shalit told Israeli newspapers that securing his son's release had originally been a central focus of the ceasefire talks, but that the government had too easily given up the demand when Hamas refused to free the soldier for anything less than the release of 450 Palestinian terrorists jailed in Israel.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni responded that Gilad Shalit's fate remains a top priority for the government, and that Israel will not move to the second phase of the truce deal, which includes opening the Gaza-Egypt border, until progress is made toward his freedom.
The Associated Press quoted Livni as telling a campaign rally in Tel Aviv that "if Hamas wants something else that is important to it, like the Rafah border crossing, then they must remember, first and foremost, that there is something we hold very dear -- Gilad Shalit."
Livni is the leading contender to take over the reins of Israel's ruling Kadima Party when the faction holds early primary elections to oust Olmert, who is embroiled in the sixth and potentially most damaging of his corruption scandals since taking office.
For its part, the Bush Administration expressed cautious optimism as the ceasefire went into effect Thursday morning.
"We hope this means no more rockets will be fired by Hamas at innocent Israelis as well as lead to a better atmosphere for talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but for that to happen, Hamas has to choose to become a legitimate political party and give up terrorism," White House deputy press secretary Gordon Johndroe told reporters.