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New drive for Israel, Hamas cease-fire deal

With no official agreement, Israel's Kadima Party could falter in Tuesday's vote.

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All of which underscores the importance of reaching a real cease-fire deal, as opposed to a shorter-term verbal agreement to stop shooting.

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Can a new quiet emerge?

A six-month-long "period of calm" – called a tahdiya in Arabic and regia in Hebrew – came to a deadly end last Dec. 19. Hamas decided it did not want to continue the cease-fire, it said, because Israel had not kept a promise to ease its blockade on Gaza's various crossings. Now, there seems to be an interest on both sides in having a year-and-a-half of quiet, even if it doesn't functionally bring them closer to a real peace deal.

"There are positive signs that in the next few days we will reach an understanding on a truce and a partial reopening of crossing points," Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki told Agence France-Presse.

Though 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the Gaza war, some in Israel saw little success in the Israeli operation, arguing that the army should have "gone all the way" to topple Hamas, and that it waited too long to respond to rockets on southern Israel. The 22-day operation in Gaza neither ended that rocket fire, nor saw the return of Sergeant Shalit, who was snatched from inside Israel in 2006.

Ehud Olmert, the outgoing prime minister, tried to temper the public's expectations of an impending deal by saying that the torrent of news of a cease-fire was "overblown" and "not helpful." His spokesman, Mark Regev, said that some of the reports were "speculative."

The Pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, based in London, reported Sunday that Israel has agreed to release jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti as part of Israel's efforts to free Shalit. Mr. Barghouti, jailed by Israel in 2002 on charges of murdering Israeli civilians and soldiers, is considered one of the most popular West Bank popular leaders in Fatah, the mainstream faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Al-Hayat also reported that Israel had agreed to release 350 of the 372 prisoners on a list presented by Hamas.

Ongoing humanitarian issues

Meanwhile, aid and rehabilitation efforts in Gaza moved in slow motion in recent days, and looked likely to continue to do so. Part of what is holding up the agreement, says one Hamas official who asked not to be named, was Hamas's demand – and Israel's refusal – to allow the import of heavier material such as cement and piping. Hamas says those items are needed for rebuilding, and Israeli officials say that they are concerned heavy materials will be used to replenish supplies of rockets.

In addition, Hamas remains in conflict with the international community amid complaints that aid shipments continue to be seized by gunmen once they reach Gaza. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the main UN group working in Gaza, said over the weekend that it was suspending aid deliveries to needy Palestinian following the seizure of 10 trucks of food by Hamas.

The agency said it was still waiting for the delivery – about 200 tons of rice and flour – to be returned, following a statement by Hamas that it had been taken by mistake.

It was the second time in a week that Hamas members had commandeered aid supplies: 3,500 blankets and 400 food parcels were seized from UNRWA at gunpoint on Tuesday, the UN agency said.

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