Olmert calls a halt to assault on Hamas

PM says all Israel's goals in Cast Lead have been attained.

Ehud Olmert meeting 88 248 (photo credit: GPO)
Ehud Olmert meeting 88 248
(photo credit: GPO)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared Operation Cast Lead a victory Saturday night and threw the ball into Hamas's court, declaring a unilateral cease-fire that suspends the three-week operation, whose future depends on whether Hamas continues to fire on Israel. Olmert's announcement followed a three-hour emergency meeting of the 12-member security cabinet Saturday night that approved the cease-fire by a vote of 7-2, with one abstention. Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai voted against, while Pensioners Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan abstained. According to what was decided Saturday night, Israel will stop its offensive, but will keep the IDF forces in place, see how Hamas responds and whether an effective mechanism will be set up on the border to stop smuggling. If so, then discussions will begin on withdrawing the troops. If not, the operation will continue. "Today, we face you again and can say that the conditions have been created so that our targets, as defined when we launched the operation, have been fully achieved, and more so," Olmert said, in a special address to the nation on Saturday night. Those goals were defined as stopping the rocket fire on Israel and an end to the arms smuggling into Gaza. "Hamas was hit hard, both its military capabilities and its governing infrastructure," Olmert said. "Its leaders are in hiding," Olmert said of Hamas. "Many of its members have been killed. The factories in which its missiles were manufactured have been destroyed. The smuggling routes, through dozens of tunnels, have been bombed. The Hamas's capabilities for conveying weapons within the Gaza Strip have been damaged." Olmert said that according to the assessments of all the security services,"Hamas's capabilities have been struck a heavy blow, which will harm its ability to rule and its military capabilities for some time." Olmert said the cease-fire would go into effect at 2 a.m. Sunday morning. Immediately following Olmert's announcement, Hamas fired eight missiles at Israel. The return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit was not a condition of the cease-fire, though both Olmert and Barak pledged to continue working unceasingly for his release. Olmert said that Hamas was completely surprised by Israel's determination and strength throughout the operation, and that if it continued with its attacks after the cease-fire goes into effect, it will be surprised again by Israel's response. "I don't suggest they test us," he said. "Hamas did not foresee Israel's determination and its seriousness in bringing about a change of the reality in the region," he said. "Hamas's leaders did not believe that Israel would launch an operation of this scope on the eve of the elections. Hamas did not foresee the strength of the military attack, and more than anything else, it did not foresee the results," he said. Olmert stressed that the security cabinet met after he received a phone call from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak describing the Egyptian cease-fire proposal. "Hamas is not a part of the arrangement we reached," Olmert said. "Terrorist organizations like Hamas have no part in agreements." Olmert, in what sounded almost like a line-by-line recital of lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War, said that the reserves were well prepared and equipped, the home front well taken care of, and the decisions at the government level were made in an orderly fashion. He was profuse in his praise of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who was not at the security cabinet meeting because she was en route home from the US. Both Olmert and Barak, who spoke after Olmert, stressed that the war was waged not against the Palestinians but rather against Hamas, with Olmert reiterating his commitment to a two-state solution. Barak said there were likely to be continued rocket attacks on Israel and IDF forces in the immediate aftermath of the cease-fire, and that the army was prepared to deal with that eventuality. Hamas, meanwhile, said it was not obligated by the unilateral declaration. "The occupier must halt his fire immediately and withdraw from our land and lift his blockade and open all crossings and we will not accept any one Zionist soldier on our land, regardless of the price it exacts," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said. Hamas fired rockets that landed near Ashdod and in the Eshkol and Sha'ar Hanegev areas just before the end of the security cabinet meeting. Olmert, who last week supported the continuation of the operation, while both Livni and Barak were in favor a cease-fire, now believes that Israel has achieved the two goals it set for itself: an end to the terrorism from Gaza, and preventing arms smuggling from Iran and other terrorist organizations into Gaza. The security cabinet was briefed by Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry's diplomatic-military bureau, and the prime minister's foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman on their talks Thursday and Friday with Egypt, and the various understandings being worked out with Egypt on how to stop the smuggling. The understandings with Egypt are just one layer of a multilayered approach being put together to create an international mechanism to prevent the arms smuggling. Another key component was signed Friday in the US, when Livni and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed a memorandum of understanding in Washington, "regarding prevention of the supply of arms and related materiel to terrorist groups." That agreement underscores the US commitment to help Israel fight terrorism, and pledges both increased intelligence security and intelligence cooperation, an enhancement of the existing international sanctions, and enforcement mechanisms against providing support to Hamas and other terrorist organizations. Diplomatic officials said that the effort to stop the smuggling has three parts: an international effort to choke off the smuggling routes before the arms find their way to the tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor; more effective Egyptian efforts in fighting the smuggling at the border; the building of some type of physical barrier - a moat, trench or some kind of underground "wall" - that could be built by US or European engineers and technicians. Europe also committed itself over the weekend to fighting the smuggling, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, scheduled to arrive in Israel Sunday to give their support to the agreement. They will be coming to Israel from Sharm e-Sheikh, where Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Sarkozy are cochairing a summit to discuss the crisis. Among other participants invited to attend are UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Turkish Prime Minister Recap Tayyip Erdogan - who on Friday called for Israel to be barred from the UN - and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Brown announced Saturday that Britain was prepared to provide naval resources to help monitor and stop arms being smuggled into the Gaza Strip. Brown said Germany, France and Britain sent a letter to Israel and Egypt saying that they were prepared to do everything they could to prevent arms trafficking. Italy also signed on the letter. In addition, Brown said Britain was also prepared to do everything it can to help with the border crossings, including European support for monitors at the crossings. "We are prepared to provide British naval support to stop arms trafficking. Other countries are agreeing also that they will provide the support that is necessary to stop arms getting into Gaza," Brown said. "At the same time, we're prepared to provide European support for monitoring at the crossings." Just prior to the convening of the security cabinet, Noam and Aviva Schalit, the parents of Gilad Schalit, held a press conference demanding that the release of their son be incorporated in any agreement to stop the fighting.