As Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, shattered the longest lull yesterday since the latest Israeli-Palestinian confrontation erupted 15 months ago, the new violence seemed to prove that the word cease-fire has very different meanings to the two sides.
"For Arafat, a cease-fire is not total. He wants some fire while negotiating. For him, it is legitimate to maintain the option of violence," says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.
"For Sharon, a cease-fire means total Palestinian submission to his terms. He is uncomfortable with the political process and settlement freeze that would ensue" in keeping with recommendations last year of a US-led fact-finding mission whose implementation is the target of US envoy Anthony Zinni's missions.
Amid fierce denunciation of the Palestinian Authority, Israel's security cabinet was due to convene to weigh a response after two Hamas fighters killed four Israeli soldiers before being killed themselves at Kerem Shalom, just inside Israeli territory next to the Gaza Strip. After past Hamas suicide bombings inside Israel that killed civilians, Israel has responded with F-16 attacks and tank incursions into Palestinian cities.
The attack was the first major violent incident since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called for a cease-fire on Dec. 16. But Palestinian analysts predicted Mr. Arafat's response would be less than a harsh blow to Hamas, in part because the public would have wide sympathy for an attack on Israeli soldiers, right near Gaza.
"It would be different if they blew up a cafe in Jerusalem," says Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center. "This is a violation on the technical level, a violation acceptable to most people, though not the Palestinian Authority."
At the least, the attack, coupled with Israel's seizure of a weapons boat last week, will give Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon more ammunition to argue to Mr. Zinni that Arafat is not a suitable negotiating partner and that more pressure must be applied on the Palestinian Authority (PA) to act against militants, analysts say.
At worst, however, the violence could trigger an escalation that could deter Zinni from returning, just as an eruption in November sent him home empty-handed, they say.
In keeping with the perceptual gulf between them, there were vastly different reactions to the attack among Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli spokesman Avi Pazner termed the attack "murderous" and added that "it proves the PA has not done enough to stop violence."
The PA condemned the attack, saying Sharon would use it as "an excuse to continue the military escalation and siege against our people."
But Jamila Sydam, an Arafat loyalist who is a Palestinian legislator in the Gaza Strip, said she is against the timing of the operation, not the operation itself. "Hamas has deviated from national obligations and taken an action that serves Israel."
Few on the Palestinian side seemed surprised by the Hamas attack. For one thing, it had agreed to desist from attacks inside Israel, not in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, so that this attack, though just inside Israel, was not stretching things very far and clearly targeted soldiers.
Hossam Khader, a legislator from Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank, said that "the cease-fire is just for the official Palestinian soldiers, not for the revolutionary movements, including Fatah. If we are talking about the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it is legal and proper to combat the occupation."
Mr. Khader added that the Palestinians felt there had been no Israeli response to the cease-fire and that Israeli declarations of easing restrictions on the population did not reflect reality.
He also said that past Israeli assassinations of wanted Palestinians have fueled violence on the Palestinian side. "The truth is that there is nothing that can stop the violence, just if Israel recognizes the political rights of the Palestinian people and goes back to the negotiating table," he said.
"I expect a strong Palestinian wave of attacks against settlers and soldiers, and I expect strong Israeli attacks against the Palestinian people," Khader adds. "The cease-fire will completely break down, because Sharon has no political option."
Khaled Meshal, a Hamas leader, chided Arafat for announcing the cease-fire during remarks in Beirut. "My brothers in the PA, what have you won with this cooling off and repeated declarations of cease-fire? What have you to show for meeting the demands of the Zionist entity and America?"
Mr. Alpher, the Israeli analyst, says that Arafat has harmed himself by failing to achieve a total cease-fire.
"We have Arafat without a strategy for peace and Sharon without a strategy for peace," he said. "Sharon would be in a very different position if there was a genuine cease-fire and movement toward a settlement freeze. But Sharon is not being put to the test. Arafat, in his folly, is making sure of that."