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The Murder of Yasser Arafat: "Powerful" - The Times of London

Friday, 20 June 2008

Tentative peace in the Middle East brings doubts

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE : Friday, June 20, 2008

Nevertheless, political leaders on both sides expressed doubts that the other would keep their part of the bargain. Israeli army tanks continued to patrol the border fence and Palestinian fighters kept their weapons close at hand. But as evening fell, neither side had fired since the truce went into effect at 6 a.m. Thursday.

In Sderot, the Israeli town of 20,000 inhabitants near the Gaza border hit by more than 4,000 rockets since Hamas seized the Gaza Strip a year ago - including 20 on Wednesday alone - most residents greeted the truce with wary hope. "Calm for how long?" factory worker Meir Kroytoro told the New York Times.

In the Jabalya Palestinian refugee camp, scene of numerous Israeli invasions and rocket attacks, shoppers in an open-air market expressed the same sentiment.

But there was a rare agreement that the cease-fire has been a diplomatic success for Hamas and another political blow for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is mired in a corruption scandal that threatens to topple him from power.

Noam Schalit, father of the abducted Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit, delivered a withering criticism of the cease-fire, accusing Olmert of abandoning his son, who has been held for two years.

Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the weakness of the government for failing to include Schalit's release in the first stage of the deal. If the cease-fire holds, Israel will ease its blockade on Gaza before resuming negotiations on Schalit's plight.

On Tuesday, Olmert will try to restore his flagging popularity when he visits Egypt for talks with President Hosni Mubarak, which are expected to produce a deal in which Schalit is released in exchange for several hundred Palestinian prisoners.

"This is still very complicated and controversial. It might take some time, but the ball is in the Israeli court," Hamas policy adviser Ahmed Yousuf said. "There is a list of names, and actually there is a timetable for everything."

At his office at the Hamas Foreign Ministry building in Gaza City, Yousuf said the cease-fire is good for both sides.

"I think it's a win-win situation for both the Israelis and the Palestinians," he said. "I think this will lay the foundation for future steps for a real commitment from both sides that they will respect the other.

"The Palestinians are looking to stop all the Israeli aggression and incursions, and the Israelis also hope that the Palestinians will stop firing the rockets on them. I do believe that from our side we will keep our commitment. I hope the Israelis also will keep to the things they promised."

Even Izzedine Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas responsible for numerous attacks on Israel, issued a statement backing the cease-fire.

"We believe that calm is a need to ease the suffering of our people, to promote the option of resistance and the steadfastness," said a statement published on the group's Web site.

But in the dusty alleyways of Beit Hanoun, a favorite launching-pad for Palestinian rocket attacks across the border, and target of repeated Israeli military reprisals, a masked Izzedine Qassam Brigades commander brandished an M16 assault rifle, hand grenades and pistol.

"We're used to holding our weapons in the enemy's faces," said the militant, who identified himself as Abu Khaled and boasted of personally firing 30 rockets into Israel in the past year. "We were forced into this, but we hope that good comes out of it. We will always have our weapons with us, ready to fight the enemy. We will respond to any violation of the cease-fire agreement by the Israelis. We are still committed to the destruction of Israel."

Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said that if the cease-fire holds, the blockade on Gaza would be gradually lifted and supplies of cement, fuel and other goods restored to previous levels. About 80 percent of its 1.4 million residents depend on food aid, according to U.N. figures.

"Now we will be able to make sure that many of these raw materials will be allowed to cross to Gaza, and that means you give a chance to thousands of Palestinians to go back to their work," said Yousuf, the Hamas policy adviser.

But in Jabalya refugee camp, ordinary Gazans were skeptical.

"Even if the gates are open between us and the Israelis, this will not solve the economic situation here in Gaza because most people will not be able to cross into Israel to earn a living," said Hosein Wadi, a 50-year-old father of eight who used to work as a driver in Israel. "For 10 years, I have been sitting doing nothing. No one looks after the ordinary workers. We need money."

E-mail Matthew Kalman at foreign@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page A - 12 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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