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Israel and Hamas OK Gaza truce

June 18, 2008|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — After trying for a year to seal off the Gaza Strip and bring down its Hamas rulers, Israel agreed Tuesday to permit a limited flow of goods to and from the Palestinian enclave in exchange for a prolonged halt in rocket fire against Israeli border communities.

The truce, brokered by Egypt and set to take effect Thursday, was greeted by widespread skepticism that it will last. It offers no provision that either the Israeli army or Hamas' well-armed paramilitary units will halt preparations for a large-scale confrontation.

But by striking a deal, Israel and Hamas have signaled a shift in the region's political landscape.

For its part, Israel has made a tacit acknowledgment that the militant Islamic group's grip on Gaza is so strong that the Jewish state can no longer count on a U.S.-backed strategy to drive an avowed enemy from power through isolation.

Instead, Israel negotiated indirectly with Hamas and repeatedly postponed the invasion that its army was preparing for, even in the face of near-daily rocket attacks and civilian clamor for a harsh response.

"Whatever happens to the truce, Hamas has achieved de facto recognition," said Menachem Klein, a former nongovernmental Israeli negotiator. "Israel is acknowledging, in effect, that its blockade has not worked and Hamas is here to stay."

In turn, Hamas showed its willingness to coexist, at least temporarily, alongside the Jewish state. Although the group's charter calls for Israel's destruction, its leaders have said they are willing to pursue a long-term truce in order to build a Palestinian state.

Hamas, a militant offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged in the late 1980s, has observed unilateral and agreed-upon truces with Israel, most recently in November 2006. All broke down within weeks or months.

This is the first such arrangement to include an easing of the blockade, which Israel, the United States and the European Union imposed on Gaza and the West Bank after Hamas' rise to power in parliamentary elections in early 2006.

The West Bank blockade ended after a violent breakup of the Palestinian Authority's power-sharing government a year ago left the secular-led Fatah group in charge there and Hamas ruling Gaza.

Since then, Israel has intensified the Gaza blockade, calling the measure a response to the rocket attacks, and opened peace talks with the Fatah leader, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The strategy is aimed at undermining Hamas through a combination of economic pressure, frequent military strikes and incursions, and progress toward a peace accord that would enhance Fatah's popularity.

That strategy has not borne fruit. The U.S.-backed peace talks launched in November have made no visible progress, and Hamas has retained much of its popular support by blaming Gaza's poverty on the blockade and striking Israel with home-made rockets.

The attacks have reinforced an impression among Palestinians that Israel, which has no air defenses against the rockets, is more responsive to deadly force than to diplomacy.

"It is telling that in the past year of conflict, the only significant agreement Israel has made is not with Mahmoud Abbas but with Hamas," said Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Beirut-based Institute for Palestine Studies, an independent research organization. "This not only weakens Abbas and the United States; it could open the way for European countries to recognize Hamas."

Egyptian and Palestinian officials announced Tuesday's truce agreement, calling it a breakthrough in the conflict after months of mediation.

If it holds, they said, a "mutual and simultaneous calm" would last at least 60 days and bring about a gradual easing of restrictions that have halted the flow of nearly all commercial goods through Israeli- controlled border crossings for a year, deepening Gaza's impoverishment.

A reopening of Gaza's only other border crossing, with Egypt, would gain Israel's consent at a later stage of negotiations. Such a step would enable Gaza's 1.5 million people to leave the densely populated strip and return. But it would depend on progress toward a deal to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured two years ago and held by Hamas.

Israeli officials characterized Tuesday's accord as a tentative and informal arrangement to halt the fighting. Without acknowledging the accord itself, the U.S. State Department said it supported the effort to achieve calm.

"It's early to herald a cease-fire, and even if it were to happen . . . it is difficult to estimate how long it will last," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. "The test will be in the implementation, but it is important to give it a chance."

As details of the accord were being worked out, Israeli aircraft attacked targets in southern Gaza, killing six militants in a car. Gaza militants then fired four mortar shells at Israel, but no one was hurt.

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