Hamas says Gaza militants, Israelis agree to a cease-fire
Truce shaky as strikes go on after deadline; Diplomats work to fix Egypt rift
JERUSALEM - Gaza militants agreed to a cease-fire with Israel to stop spiking violence, a Hamas official said yesterday, after a deadly attack on Israelis near the Egypt-Israel border set off a three-day round of Israeli airstrikes and militant rocket barrages from Gaza.
The sudden flare-up also threatened Israeli-Egyptian relations, after Egypt said five of its police officers were killed as Israel’s troops and aircraft pursued the militants responsible for killing eight people Thursday. Egypt complained strongly as thousands demonstrated in Cairo, and Israel apologized.
The senior Hamas official said afternoon that militant groups in Gaza agreed that the truce would go into effect last night. Hamas security personnel would enforce the agreement brokered by Egypt, the official said. He said Egypt told the groups that Israel would agree to halt its airstrikes only if the Palestinians stopped the rocket fire first.
A spokesman for Israel’s government would not comment, and it was not clear whether the cease-fire would hold. Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes continued hours after the cease-fire was to take effect at 9 p.m. local time.
Earlier yesterday, a salvo of rockets from Gaza struck an empty school and sent thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters. Israel responded with airstrikes and diplomats scrambled to limit the violence.
The diplomatic efforts were also aimed at limiting the damage from the deaths of the Egyptian police officers. An Israeli envoy arrived at Cairo’s international airport yesterday morning and was whisked off in a convoy of four waiting cars, airport officials said. Israel’s government would not comment on the envoy’s identity or the details of his mission.
A second unidentified envoy arrived later, the Egyptian officials said. France and Germany were also working with the Israelis and Egyptians to end the diplomatic spat, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss ongoing diplomatic efforts.
US Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman also arrived to help mediate, according to an official at the American Embassy in Cairo, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Alongside the diplomacy, Israel threatened to intensify its attacks if the rocket barrages continue. Speaking to Israel Radio, military spokesman Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai said Israel “will not hesitate’’ to widen its military operation if necessary. Diplomats scrambled to try to prevent the violence - the deadliest since Israel went to war against Gaza militants 2 1/2 years ago - from spiraling out of control.
Large-scale Israeli military operations in Gaza would create new friction with the Muslim world at a time when the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is preparing to ask the United Nations to recognize an independent Palestinian state. Pictures of a major Israeli offensive in Gaza could hurt the Jewish state’s efforts to minimize world support for the Palestinian statehood bid.
A spokesman said Abbas’s Palestinian Authority planned to use the renewed violence to bolster its case for statehood at the UN next month. “An independent Palestinian state is the remedy for violence,’’ Husam Zomlot said. “It would control its borders and prevent such deterioration from happening.’’
Abbas, who wields limited power in the West Bank under Israel’s overall security control, asserts no such control in Gaza. Hamas routed his loyalists from Gaza in a violent 2007 takeover, and a reconciliation pact the two sides signed in May has stalled.
Israel had pulled out of Gaza in 2005.
Hamas, backed by Iran, opposes both peacemaking with Israel and Abbas’s statehood bid.
Under Hamas rule, Gaza’s militants have increased the quality and range of their rocket arsenals and now target the largest city in Israel’s south - Beersheba, 25 miles away. Most of the rockets launched since Thursday have been military-grade Katyushas smuggled in through tunnels from Egypt.
Since Thursday’s ambush, militants have fired about 100 rockets and mortar rounds into Israel. On Saturday, rockets killed an Israeli man in Beersheba and seriously wounded two others.
Because security has traditionally trumped all other concerns in Israel, some of the country’s social activists fear that the spike of violence with the Palestinians could overwhelm a spontaneous and surprisingly strong summerlong revolt against the country’s high cost of living.
The attacks and counterattacks over the weekend have abruptly shifted the country’s attention away from the economic protests that were coalescing into a serious threat to the government.
It is unclear whether the public’s attention will ever shift back to the brief period marked by heightened awareness of social ills and the near-giddiness over the prospect that Israel might become a “normal’’ country where money matters, not military needs, can take center stage.
Thousands of Israelis erected protest tents in city centers and hundreds of thousands took to the streets in mass demonstrations that became a weekly Saturday night ritual this summer, sending Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scrambling to find solutions and keep his government together.
Stav Shaffir, one of the protest movement’s leaders, said yesterday that protesters in several of the movement’s tent encampments in southern cities were forced to seek cover in bomb shelters.
But Shaffir insisted that the attacks would not derail the protests. “The rockets are a short-term danger,’’ she said. “The disintegration of a society is a long-term threat. . . . We have to keep going. We can’t let the security situation erode us from within.’’