Gaza rockets strain Israel-Hamas truce

Palestinian militants from Islamic Jihad fired rockets on Israel Tuesday in retaliation for an Israeli strike on its members in the West Bank.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In the first test of a five-day-old Gaza cease-fire, Palestinian militants fired rockets into southern Israel just hours after Israeli and Egyptian leaders met at this Red Sea resort to discuss possibly deepening the truce with a new round of talks on a prisoner exchange with Hamas.

Islamic Jihad said it fired a salvo of Qassam missiles, which left two people with minor injuries, as retaliation for the killing of two of its members by the Israeli army in the West Bank earlier in the day.

The attack is a challenge to Hamas, which has pledged to enforce a tahdiyeh, Arabic for calm, on the disparate militia groups. In exchange for imposing the cease-fire in the Palestinian territory, Hamas expects Israel to make good on a promise to lift a blockade on the coastal enclave. Hamas officials have condemned the Tuesday strike.

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"This definitely is a test for all of us on both sides of the fence," says Eyad Sarraj, the director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. "Hamas must exercise control, show leadership, and wisdom and maturity" and rein in Islamic Jihad.

Most of an hour-long private meeting in Sharm el-Sheik between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was dedicated to the Gaza cease-fire with Hamas, in which Egypt served as a key go-between.

The rocket attack, which hit the southern Israeli town of Sderot, triggered a new round of consultations with the Egyptians after the Israelis departed. Israeli officials declined to comment on how they would respond to the cease-fire violation.

"This is obviously a clear and grave violation of the agreements with the Egyptians to achieve calm in the south," says Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"We left there with understandings that the calm was working, more or less … and we came back to the reality of Qassams on Sderot and people's housing being bombed."

The cross-border attack highlighted the tensions between Hamas and other Palestinian factions over the cease-fire. In agreeing to the tahdiyeh, Hamas conceded to Israel's insistence that the truce apply only to the Gaza Strip rather than including the West Bank as it had previously demanded.

The Qassam strike served as a reminder from Islamic Jihad that it doesn't consider itself bound by the cease-fire's distinction between the two Palestinian territories.

Mr. Sarraj accused Israel of pressuring Hamas and deliberately undermining the cease-fire by targeting Islamic Jihad militants in the West Bank: "They did what they did in order to provoke a reaction" from Islamic Jihad.

Analysts said that the damage from attack wasn't extensive enough for Israel to justify abandoning the cease-fire at such an early date. Israel wants to see if Hamas will make good on its commitment to enforce the truce on other armed factions.

"There are no huge domestic demands for responding because no one was hurt, and there's a logic in waiting," says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "The logic is to reestablish stability and get Sderot quiet again. The odds are still very small and this just reinforces that."

Israel is also keen to leverage the calm to secure the release of soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was captured from the Gaza border two years ago and has been held in the Palestinian territory ever since.

Following the meetings with Mr. Mubarak Tuesday, Israeli officials said they received assurances that Egypt would not agree to the reopening of the Rafah civilian crossing with Gaza until Israel and Hamas conclude a prisoner swap.

Egyptian presidential spokesman Sulieman Awad called the meetings "open" and "transparent." "We are ready and willing to continue efforts to stabilize the situation and push ahead – but it requires flexibility" on both sides, he said.

Israel will send its chief negotiator to Egypt before the end of the week to restart intense negotiations on the prisoner swap.

The government has come under harsh criticism for failing to secure Corporal Shalit's release as part of the original cease-fire agreement. The Shalit family even challenged the truce in Israel's Supreme Court, which declined to intervene.

Therein lies another potential Achilles' heel of the agreement: While Israel insists that freeing Shalit is an integral part of the deal, Hamas has insisted that the Shalit issue was not part of the agreement.

"We cannot move to anything close to normalization on the crossings without first releasing Gilad Shalit," says Mr. Regev. "That is a prerequisite to anything close to the normal functioning of the crossings."

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