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Analysis by Peter Hirschberg

"Accidental" Israeli Bombing Kills 18 in Gaza, Including 8 Children

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- After five months of trying to outlast one another, Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to stop killing each other -- for now. By 6AM on Sunday morning, the last Israeli soldier had left the Gaza Strip. That was also the time at which Palestinian militants had agreed they would cease firing rockets into Israel as part of a mutual ceasefire.

A few rockets landed in Israel shortly after the truce went into effect. On Monday, there were a few more, but nothing like the barrage of previous days. And Israeli leaders counselled patience, saying it could take a few days for the ceasefire to take hold.

Leaders on both sides have been on their best behavior since Sunday morning. An aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that the firing of rockets after the ceasefire deadline was a "violation" and he urged "all to abide by the agreement."

Ghazi Hamed, spokesman for Hamas, the Islamic movement that swept to power in parliamentary elections at the beginning of the year, was keen to emphasise that his colleagues were "committed completely to this agreement and we will not allow anyone to break this agreement."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sounded especially generous. "Even though there are still violations of the ceasefire by the Palestinian side, I have instructed our defence officials not to respond, to show restraint, and to give this ceasefire a chance to take full effect," he declared.

But this is a truce born of mutual exhaustion, not of the belief in a new and bold diplomatic horizon. Over 400 Palestinians, most of them militants but many civilians too, have been killed since Israel launched an extended operation in Gaza after Hamas militants snatched an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid in late June.

Yet, despite the many deaths -- 19 members of an extended family were killed in a single strike earlier this month by a wayward Israeli artillery shell -- the international community has not rushed to the aid of the Palestinians in the form of pressure on Israel to end the military's extended stay in Gaza.

For Israel, the ongoing raids into northern Gaza have failed to stop the rocket fire. Even with Israeli troops, tanks and armoured vehicles patrolling northern Gaza, rockets have continued to rain down on the southern town of Sderot. Two residents were killed there earlier this month, and with growing calls for the government to evacuate the town, pressure on Olmert to find a solution was intense.

The initial goal of the Israeli military foray into Gaza -- to put pressure on the Palestinians to release Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the soldier being held captive -- has also not been achieved. In a speech on Monday, Olmert for the first time made an explicit public declaration that he is willing to accept a prisoner exchange.

"I hereby declare that when Gilad Shalit is released and returned to his family, safe and sound, the Government of Israel will be willing to release numerous Palestinian prisoners -- including ones who were sentenced to lengthy prison terms -- in order to increase the trust between us and prove that our hand is truly extended in genuine peace," he declared.

Israeli officials are hoping that if Shalit is released and the truce endures, it could lead to a meeting between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to a renewal of efforts to get peace negotiations, which have been on ice since the second Palestinian uprising erupted six years ago, back on track.

If a new Palestinian government is established that recognises Israel, renounces violence and pledges to observe interim peace accords, Olmert said, he would invite Abbas "to meet with me immediately, in order to conduct a real, open, genuine and serious dialogue between us."

In exchange for "true peace" the Israeli leader reiterated his readiness to evacuate "many territories" and settlements in the West Bank and to accept the creation of a Palestinian state with "territorial contiguity" and with "full sovereignty and defined borders." For Olmert, whose approval ratings have been in the cellar since the conclusion of hostilities in Lebanon -- Israelis believe he badly mishandled the war -- an extended cessation of hostilities could provide a political lifeline.

But Israeli military officials are intensely suspicious of Hamas. The organisation's willingness to agree to a truce, they believe, is a sign that it has taken a battering at the hands of the Israeli army and now wants time to recuperate and rearm ahead of the next round of hostilities. They also believe that despite pledges by Palestinian leaders, the smuggling of arms into Gaza from Egypt via underground tunnels will continue unabated.

For Abbas, a truce is a crucial element in his plan to construct a Palestinian national unity government that will recognise Israel and pave the way for the lifting of crippling western sanctions on his people, in place since Hamas came to power earlier this year. The release of the captive Israeli soldier, the subsequent release of large numbers of Palestinian prisoners, and a meeting with Olmert would bolster his flagging domestic image.

But as both sides lick their wounds, most Israelis and Palestinians find it hard to believe that the truce is anything more than a temporary hiatus in the violence. The countdown to yet another round of bloodletting, they are convinced, has already begun.

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Albion Monitor   November 27, 2006   (

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