Egypt mediates tacit truce on Gaza border

Israel and Hamas agree to hold their fire unless attacked; Defense Minister Barak praises "resilience" of rocket-wracked South.

IDF soldier on patrol along Gaza Strip 390 (photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
IDF soldier on patrol along Gaza Strip 390
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
An uneasy calm fell along the Gaza border by Tuesday evening, as a four-day rocket barrage by Palestinians against the South trickled down to a small number of rockets.
Two rockets slammed into the South during the day – a long-range rocket landed near Ashdod in the morning, and a second projectile exploded in the Hof Ashkelon Region. No injuries were reported.
Both Israel and Hamas sent signals to each other via Egypt that they would hold their fire unless attacked, after five days of mounting violence.
An official involved in the Egyptian mediation confirmed both sides were ready to stop.
“The message was clear, and Israel too told Egypt they were not interested in escalation if rocket firing stopped. The situation now is calm for calm and I hope it does not deteriorate,” the official told Reuters.
The tacit truce arrested an escalation, but did not completely stop the violence or the rhetoric, as Israel continued to promise that it would defend its citizens.
“Whoever thinks that he can routinely attack the daily lives of the residents of the South without paying a heavy price is mistaken.
I am responsible for choosing the right time to exact the highest possible price and so it will be,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu traveled to meet with southern council and regional council heads in Beersheba, riding down from Tel Aviv in 55 minutes via a fast train. He did this to underscore the message that the southern periphery area of Israel, where more than 150 rockets have fallen, is intrinsically linked to the country’s Center.
“I chose to... head down to Beersheba on the renovated train line to show, through personal experience, the fast link between the Center to the South. This line, which now allows travel to Beersheba in under an hour, shows how close the Center is to the South,” the prime minister said.
Before heading to Beersheba he called a meeting of the inner security cabinet, which according to Army Radio agreed Tuesday not to retaliate as long as the rocket fire stops.
The cabinet agreed that if the rocket fire is renewed, than Israel would increase the severity of its response in hopes of deterring further violence from the Palestinians, Army Radio said.
Following the meeting, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said Gaza has a terrorist infrastructure reminiscent of Hezbollah prior to the 2006 Lebanon War.
“[Israel] never agreed to this situation, which goes against all of our agreements with the Palestinians,” he said.
Other ministers said that Israel should consider assassinating Hamas leaders.
On a trip down South on Tuesday morning, Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that the hostilities had not ceased.
Barak traveled to the Gaza border to visit the IDF’s Gaza Division and held a security evaluation with army chiefs.
He praised the army officials for “a professional and systematic operation that is being carried out,” adding that “Hamas and the terror organizations are absorbing heavy blows in Gaza as a result.”
“This clearly isn’t over and we will decide how and when to act the minute there will be a need to do so,” the defense minister said, repeating similar statements he made over the past three days.
“I don’t want to address when or ways [to operate], because it would not be right to give that information to the other side,” he said.
Barak reiterated that Israel “would not accept the harm to daily life of our civilians,” adding that “we intend to bring back deterrence” and to ensure that the IDF will be able to operate freely along the Gaza border fence, where it has come under frequent attack in recent weeks.
Asked to respond to the frustration of southern residents over the lack of a clear IDF response to the recent Palestinian rocket barrages, Barak said, “I’d like to praise the heads of councils and mayors... and civilians... on their resilience.” He added that there was no speedy solution.
“On these issues it’s preferable to act rather than to speak,” Barak noted.
In Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of Gaza’s Hamas government, praised the main armed factions in the enclave for agreeing on Monday night to a truce.
“They showed a high sense of responsibility by saying they would respect calm should the Israeli occupation also abide by it,” he said.
Haniyeh spoke during an unannounced visit to a hospital to see wounded Palestinians.
The EU and the Arab League issued a joint statement of concern after a meeting with foreign ministers from both groups in Cairo Tuesday.
“The ministers expressed concern at the recent escalation in and around Gaza and welcomed the Egyptian efforts aimed at reaching a ceasefire,” the statement said.
On Monday night, Israel asked the UN Security Council to condemn the recent barrage of Palestinian rockets.
“The serious danger of an even greater escalation hangs over our very volatile region.
Many Israeli civilians and soldiers have been injured. Damage to property has been significant.
One million people in southern Israel remain under grave threat,” Ambassador to the UN in New York Ron Prosor wrote in a letter.
He addressed it to the Security Council and to UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon.
“Israel holds Hamas fully responsible for all acts of terrorism flowing from Gaza,” Prosor wrote. “The time for the Security Council to condemn Hamas terrorism with one voice is now, before it is too late.”
Prosor also said that “the Palestinian leadership has a fundamental responsibility to clearly condemn Hamas terrorism. The silence that continues to echo from [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas’s office speaks volumes.”
Israel, he concluded, will take all necessary steps to protect its citizens.
“Those who target Israelis with terrorism today will pay a very heavy price tomorrow. Israel has exercised – and will continue to exercise – our right to self-defense.”
Reuters and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.