Hamas-Israel ceasefire takes hold but mistrust runs deep

CAIRO/GAZA,  (Reuters) – A ceasefire between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers took hold yesterday after eight days of conflict, although deep mistrust on both sides cast doubt on how long the Egyptian-sponsored deal can last.

Even after the ceasefire came into force late on Wednesday, a dozen rockets from the Gaza Strip landed in Israel, all in open areas, a police spokesman said. In Gaza, witnesses reported an explosion shortly after the truce took effect at 9 p.m (1900 GMT), but there were no casualties and the cause was unclear.

The deal prevented, at least for the moment, an Israeli ground invasion of the Palestinian enclave following bombing and rocket fire which killed five Israelis and 162 Gazans, including 37 children.

But trust was in short supply. The exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, said his Islamist movement would respect the truce if Israel did, but would respond to any violations. “If Israel complies, we are compliant. If it does not comply, our hands are on the trigger,” he told a news conference in Cairo.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had agreed to “exhaust this opportunity for an extended truce”, but told his people a tougher approach might be required in the future.

Both sides quickly began offering differing interpretations of the ceasefire, brokered by Egypt’s new Islamist government and backed by the United States, highlighting the many actual or potential areas of discord.

If it holds, the truce will give 1.7 million Gazans respite from days of ferocious air strikes and halt rocket salvoes from militants that have unnerved a million people in southern Israel and reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time.

At the United Nations, the Security Council called on both Israel and Hamas to uphold the ceasefire and commended Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi and others for brokering the truce.

The council said in a statement it “deplored the loss of civilian lives resulting from this situation and reiterated the need to take appropriate steps to ensure the safety and well-being of civilians and their protection in accordance with international humanitarian law.”

“Allahu akbar, (God is greatest), dear people of Gaza you won,” blared mosque loudspeakers in Gaza as the truce took effect. “You have broken the arrogance of the Jews.”

Fifteen minutes later, wild celebratory gunfire echoed across the darkened streets, which gradually filled with crowds waving Palestinian flags. Ululating women leaned out of windows and fireworks lit up the sky.

Meshaal thanked Egypt for mediating and praised Iran for providing Gazans with financing and arms. “We have come out of this battle with our heads up high,” he said, adding that Israel had been defeated and failed in its “adventure”.

Some Israelis staged protests against the deal, notably in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi, where three people were killed by a Gaza rocket during the conflict, army radio said.

Netanyahu said he was willing to give the truce a chance but held open the possibility of reopening the conflict. “I know there are citizens expecting a more severe military action, and perhaps we shall need to do so,” he said.

The Israeli leader, who faces a parliamentary election in January, delivered a similar message earlier in a telephone call with U.S. President Barack Obama, his office said.

According to a text of the agreement seen by Reuters, both sides should halt all hostilities, with Israel desisting from incursions and targeting of individuals, while all Palestinian factions should cease rocket fire and cross-border attacks. The deal also provides for easing Israeli restrictions on Gaza’s residents, who live in what British Prime Minister David Cameron has called an “open prison”.

The text said procedures for implementing this would be “dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire”.

Israeli sources said Israel would not lift a blockade of the enclave it enforced after Hamas, which rejects the Jewish state’s right to exist, won a Palestinian election in 2006.

However, Meshaal said the deal covered the opening of all of the territory’s border crossings. “The document stipulates the opening of the crossings, all the crossings, and not just Rafah,” he said. Israel controls all of Gaza’s crossings apart from the Rafah post with Egypt.

Hamas lost its top military commander to an Israeli strike in the conflict and suffered serious hits to its infrastructure and weaponry, but has emerged with its reputation both in the Arab world and at home stronger.

Israel can take comfort from the fact it dealt painful blows to its enemy, which will take many months to recover, and showed that it can defend itself from a barrage of missiles.

“No one is under the illusion that this is going to be an everlasting ceasefire. It is clear to everyone it will only be temporary,” said Michael Herzog, a former chief of staff at the Israeli ministry of defence.

“But there is a chance that it could hold for a significant period of time, if all goes well,” he told Reuters.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in a phone call with his Israeli counterpart, praised the performance of a U.S.-backed Israeli anti-rocket system known as “Iron Dome,” which the Pentagon said intercepted over 85 percent of rockets fired at Israeli civilians.

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