Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip are indirectly ironing out details of a cease-fire that may avert, at least temporarily, increased violence.
If there were to be a major Israeli attack, analysts agree, it would come after Israelis celebrate their 60th anniversary this month. But by the end of the month, all bets are off.
“By the end of May, there will either be a cease-fire or an escalated military situation – anything up to a full-scale invasion,” said Yossi Alpher, a political analyst and a co-editor of bitterlemons.org, an Israeli-Palestinian Web site.
“I think a cease-fire is possible,” he continued. “There is interest in the idea [in Israel], particularly since Hamas apparently dropped its demand that the cease-fire apply to the West Bank as well.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Israel could agree to a cease-fire in Gaza alone but any attempt to extend it to the West Bank “would be a non-starter.”
“Including the West Bank would mean that Israel would be giving up the security control it gained after great cost in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002,” she said. “And that would allow the terrorist groups to regroup and prepare for the next round” of attacks.
In addition to a cessation of hostilities, the cease-fire Egypt is attempting to broker would include the reopening of Israeli and Egyptian border crossings with the Gaza Strip and Egyptian forces working to ensure that Hamas does not smuggle in weapons.
Yitzhak Reiter at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said there are many Israelis who question whether the other side would abide by the deal and fear it would diminish support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Israel is trying to work out a peace agreement.
“The question is whether Israel by unofficially signing such an agreement is tying its hands behind its back,” he said.
Some Israelis also view Hamas’ quest for the deal as a sign of weakness; they would prefer to keep the pressure on, Steinberg observed.
Sharing that view is Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, who was quoted Tuesday as saying: “This is not the right time for a cease-fire with Hamas.”
He spoke on a day in which Palestinian terrorists fired a barrage of Kassam rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip. By Wednesday afternoon, 36 rockets had been fired into Israel since Monday, one narrowly missing a school in Sderot.
Palestinian terrorist groups said the stepped up rocket attack was a response to “Israel’s crimes” against Palestinians, in particular an attack Monday in Beit Hanun in which a mother and her four children were killed.
Palestinians claim an Israeli tank shell was responsible for their deaths, but Israeli officials said an Israeli missile fired at two terrorists operating near the family’s home set off explosives the men were carrying and caused the home to collapse.
Olmert expressed “deep remorse” for the deaths, but placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Hamas for operating in civilian areas.
He ordered an investigation to verify the initial account of the deaths. Steinberg said that as more and more Palestinian civilians are killed when terrorists use them as cover, “there will be a lower level of condemnation against Israel and a greater realization that the terrorists are putting their people at risk. … People in Gaza are suffering and want to put an end to this.”
At the same time Egypt is trying to broker a cease-fire with all sides, a senior official of Hamas, Mahmoud Zahar, was quoted Tuesday as saying Israel “would pay a heavy price” if it rejected the cease-fire offer.
He contended that Hamas has 200,000 people inside Israel who would be willing to blow themselves up.
The paper said an Egyptian diplomat reported that all of the Palestinian groups had agreed in principle to a truce and that he was hopeful a deal could be reached by next week since Hamas had already agreed to sign.
But Islamic Jihad issued a statement in which it said it would break the cease-fire if Israel did not extend it to the West Bank.
“Islamic Jihad sees itself as united with the West Bank,” explained Mordechai Kedar, an Arab expert at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “If Israel even arrests someone in the West Bank – never mind injure or kill – they might start shooting in Gaza.”
That is one reason, Kedar said, that any cease-fire that is achieved would not be sustained for long. It could also end because of a work accident in Gaza by one of the terrorist groups.
“The mid-level leaders of terror have labs in their own houses or cellars in which they produce explosives,” Kedar said. “If such a house gets blown up by mistake, they might blame us for targeting this house and that too might end the cease-fire.”
In addition, he said, there is such disunity among the terrorists that they often “turn on each other and target each other and then blame us.”
“The situation there is so fragile and dangerous that any match can blow up the situation,” Kedar said.
Disunity may be the reason why Israeli intelligence experts believe Hamas is planning a major terror attack next week ahead of Israel’s birthday celebrations. Israel’s Independence Day is celebrated this year on May 8.
Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin reportedly told the Israeli cabinet Tuesday that Hamas is expected to try to carry out a large-scale operation similar to one that failed on the eve of Passover.
During that attack, there was heavy Hamas gunfire, mortar shell barrages and two car bombs that smashed into the fence surrounding Gaza. A total of 13 Israeli soldiers were injured and four terrorists killed. Hamas later said it was just carrying out a practice run.